“A band is a glacier. You come to the show or you buy the album and you get about 10% of the glacier… but deep down there’s a lot of stuff that no one sees.”
No one ever said that a career in progressive music was an easy option. For a band from the remote terrain of Iceland, the barriers to international recognition must appear to be more daunting than for most, and yet Sólstafir have taken a slow, steady course over the last 22 years, defying the odds along the way and proving that there is an audience for strange, windswept and often heroically epic music played by hirsute, snow-blasted cowboys from the land of geysers, volcanoes and Björk.
When the band released their fifth studio album Ótta in 2014, their transformation from abstruse black metal artisans to one of the most enthralling progressive bands of the 21st century seemed to be complete. Reviews were ecstatic, shows were sold out and Sólstafir looked to be unstoppable. But behind the scenes, as observant fans of the band will be aware, the quartet’s wheels were coming off in the most spectacular and destructive fashion. Despite their outward appearance as a united front with nearly two decades of shared focus between them, founder members Aðalbjörn ‘Addi’ Tryggvason (vocals/guitar) and Guðmundur Óli Pálmason (drums) were reaching the tense zenith of a devastating personal fallout that had been gathering pace and intensity for some time.
“On a creative level, it still worked between us,” Tryggvason tells Prog. “But even back when we were writing the Svartir Sandar album in 2010, it was not a fun album to write. There were good days in between, but overall it was a terrible writing experience. He would show up to rehearsals, saying that everything sucked and that he didn’t want to use my ideas because he was afraid they’d get compliments about something he hadn’t written. It was basically ego stuff. I didn’t give a shit about any of that. We were a band, and we shared the credit for everything equally.”
Despite cracks beginning to show in the band’s unified façade, Sólstafir ploughed forward for several years, their star very much in the ascendant and the eventual creative triumph of Ótta suggesting that big things were lurking on the near horizon. But, as Tryggvason wearily recalls, relations between three quarters of Sólstafir and what they perceived as their increasingly disruptive drummer reached a head as the band toured in support of their 2014 album.
“We couldn’t even drink together because it always escalated into deep, personal arguments,” he sighs. “We, as a band, tried to work it out, not for a month or two weeks, but for 18 months. Doing that on tour is not a great thing to do. People could hardly be around each other because it always turned into an argument or into violence, with vodka bottles being thrown at your head. It gets to you after a while. We finished the European part of the tour and flew to New Jersey for a US tour, the four of us in a van. It was horrible. The atmosphere was this cancer-infested elephant and no one was admitting it was there. We were driving 12 or 15 hours a day. It was like being underwater. But then finally we got home and we could gasp some air.”
Convinced that there was no way forward with Pálmason that wouldn’t eventually lead to the calamitous demise of their band, Tryggvason and his band mates, bassist Svavar ‘Svabbi’ Austmann and guitarist Sæþór ‘Pjúddi’ Sæþórsson, finally bit the bullet and fired their drummer before embarking on the second leg of their European tour in 2015. As is routinely the case these days, the whole acrimonious debacle played out online, with Pálmason claiming that he had been “thrown out of his life’s work” and making it plain that he was considering legal action. Nonetheless, Tryggvason insists that any other course of action would have spelled the end of Sólstafir.
“Since the three of us didn’t have any issues and we wanted to carry on, either the band would die or we had to make some drastic changes,” he shrugs. “It was a tough decision to make and tough decisions always bring a backlash. But we fired him from the band to save the band. It wasn’t the right or wrong thing to do, it was the only thing to do. I completely understand that it was a shock. He didn’t see it coming and I would say that that’s a big part of the problem. You don’t divorce someone because you had one bad weekend. If you’re in a shitty marriage and suddenly your wife asks for a divorce and you’re like, ‘How the hell did that happen?’, you’re obviously not in touch with reality.”
Two years on from their very public disintegration, Sólstafir have gamely clawed back some kind of equilibrium. Their erstwhile comrade did take legal action, pursuing a claim against the band as far as Reykjavik’s Supreme Court, but the lawsuit was firmly dismissed, leaving Tryggvason to focus on the task of rebuilding his band and, hopefully, picking up where they left off before the shit hit the fan. Judging by new album Berdreyminn, Sólstafir have not only survived those turbulent years with their creativity and allure intact, they have also managed to evolve, resulting in some of their most mesmerising material to date.
“Time goes fast when you’re not having fun,” Tryggvason frowns, only half-joking. “I didn’t write a riff for three years. But we have a new drummer now [Hallgrímur Jón Hallgrímsson] and we have a new chemistry there too. Don’t get me wrong, the old chemistry was great. It worked well, we made some great music and we’d been together a long time. But you can’t just exchange a member from one chemistry to another, so we had to start from scratch. This chemistry is very young. To begin with we had no idea what was going to happen. Are we going to come up with brilliant stuff on day one or will it take four months to write two songs? In the first week, nothing came up and it was kind of weird, but in the last three weeks it started happening and we were tuning in to each other’s frequencies.”
Both reassuringly familiar and subtly unpredictable, the songs on Berdreyminn will surely delight anyone that fell in love with Sólstafir via Ótta or its epic predecessor, 2011’s Svartir Sandar. Now entirely bereft of the extreme metal trimmings that informed their earliest recordings, the Icelanders confidently veer from the atmospheric bluster of opener Silfur-Refur to the effortlessly catchy Isafold, which nods squarely and unashamedly to a deep-rooted Fields Of The Nephilim influence, and on to the raw muscularity of rugged deep cuts like Naros and Ambatt, every last note proclaiming that this band are once again entirely at ease with themselves and their artistic desires. But considering that they maintained the exact same line-up for 20 years, starting again with reconfigured personnel must have added an extra layer of pressure on the writing and recording process.
“At a certain point, of course, there is always pressure,” says Tryggvason. “You think that AC/DC felt pressure after Bon Scott died and they had to make another Highway To Hell? Of course. But we’ve never given a rat’s ass if people hate our music or not. We still don’t. We’ve made some stupid career moves, like having 20-minute openers, singing in Icelandic or having 10-minute instrumentals. It’s not like we’ve been producing radio hits. We didn’t give a fuck. It was just different. It’s weird, making an album but talking to lawyers all the time. I don’t recommend that to anyone! But we did tell ourselves that we wouldn’t let anything affect our creativity. We can only do our best. We can only write music that we think is great. That’s what we’ve always done. You have to trust your instincts.”
There is no direct English translation of the new Sólstafir album’s title, Berdreyminn. A fairly common word in Icelandic, its literal meaning is “naked dreamer”, meaning someone who experiences premonitory dreams, predicting future events and brushing up against some form of supernatural intuition. It’s a typically wistful and hazy title that fits perfectly with the extraordinarily evocative songs on the album, but, as Tryggvason explains, Berdreyminn also applies to his own experiences.
“When this title got brought up, our drummer came up with it and I could relate to it, so I instantly voted yes for it,” he grins. “As a teenager I would dream things. Let’s say I was working with you at a summer camp when we were 14, and I hadn’t seen you in eight years, and then in some dream we were drinking beer together or whatever… the next day, I would meet you on the street. That sort of stuff happened all the time when I was a younger man and it came to the point where I was thinking ‘What the fuck? You’re kidding me, not again. This can’t be real!’ It scared me. I told myself that it couldn’t be a coincidence, but that made me a little bit afraid, because if it isn’t a coincidence, then what is it? Is it spiritual? That’s something I’ve always been afraid of, admitting spirituality, because you can’t explain it. So for me the title has a deep meaning.”
Shrouded in those notions of clairvoyance and unsolicited telepathy, Berdreyminn is an album that noticeably expands Sólstafir’s emotional range. The windswept grandeur of past albums is fully in evidence, of course, and few would dispute that the majority of the album’s songs are rooted in dark and desolate territory. But more than on any previous record, Berdreyminn allows rays of light to burst through the pitch-black canopy of clouds that looms over the band’s music. Perhaps by going through such an emotionally gruelling and personally challenging period in their history, Tryggvason and his band mates have learned an important lesson about embracing optimism and time’s healing properties.
“Imagine that you grow up in a village that you despise,” he muses. “You think it’s the worst place ever. It ruined your childhood and you’re never going to go back there. You hate it and you hate everyone from there. Then something happens in your life and it changes you. You go back to the village many years later and this place that you once despised is now the most beautiful and peaceful place on earth. That change occurs in your head. The return to that village is hope. There’s a lot of hope on this album, even though you may be standing in the darkness, blinded by inner demons, obsessed with self-destruction and blind to your own bad deeds.”
Three years ago, Sólstafir looked to be on the verge of a major breakthrough. The road to Berdreyminn has been a difficult and frustrating one for the band, and yet the new album possesses huge amounts of that same, mysterious magic that proved so insidious and irresistible during the band’s incremental rise to prominence. Progressive to their bones but joyously, laudably unique in both perspective and delivery, Sólstafir are still defying the odds, reducing fans to a blubbering heap with songs sung in a language that very few of us understand.
“People have told us that they find Icelandic exotic. I’ve never understood that because I’m Icelandic!” Tryggvason laughs. “I guess it’s just the tone of the language and I think I get that. It reminds me of when I was watching the last Lord Of The Rings movie. When Aragorn is crowned king, he starts singing in some fictional language of Tolkien, and to me it was so exotic and amazing. I had no idea what he was singing, but I got fucking goosebumps. It’s just the tone of the voice. Maybe it’s ridiculous to get goosebumps listening to Viggo Mortensen in Lord Of The Rings, but it’s the same experience. I can be singing with this band somewhere and there will be people with tears in their eyes at the front, singing along, and they have no idea what I’m singing. There’s no greater compliment. That’s holy stuff and you can’t fuck with that.”
Berdreyminn is out May 26 on Season Of Mist. See www.solstafir.net for more information.