(Combined in this post are two different reflections on the live performances by Sólstafir, Mortals, and Pallbearer in Seattle on December 10, 2014, one by BadWolf and one by me (Islander). And for a third, you should also read Gemma Alexander’s wonderful write-up at her own blog — here. Unless otherwise noted, the photos accompanying this post were taken by me on a iPhone because BadWolf forgot his fancy camera.)
REVIEW BY BADWOLF
A band whose time has come.
Those are the only words that suit Icelandic four-piece Sólstafir in 2014. Most musicians never achieve what I’ve witnessed this year in Sólstafir—a moment (well, series of moments) that seem like the culmination of disparate chains of events, causal and serendipitous. In short, a climax. The money shot, one that seems both cathartic and earned, not for Sólstafir’s listeners, but for the band themselves.
The band of black metal cowboys has made music for two decades in relative obscurity, at least in the United States. I first encountered the group while trawling message boards in college, ravenous for progressive metal and finding most of it lacking. Sólstafir were different. Their early tracks came via shady download sites in low bitrates, with files unable to properly display the accent marks in their song titles, but still I found myself enamored of their unique sound, a mix of atmospheric sludge and progressive black metal that strived for beauty, not abrasiveness. Since then the band became a perennial NCS favorite and inked a deal with Season of Mist records, who released their fourth album, Svartir Sandar to a wider audience. Still, conversationally, Sólstafir was a footnote in greater conversations, even though one of their songs debuted at #1 in Iceland.
Two things changed for the band this year.
Sólstafir at MDF – photo by MetalChris
One, they played a masterful set at this year’s Maryland Deathfest. Islander and I were in attendance at that set, which sported Sólstafir showing up looking unlike every other group at the fest, and playing an immaculately-mixed set with the setting Baltimore sun directly at their backs. Some of what made that set memorable can be chalked up to circumstance (they played the first day in a really good atmosphere, before everyone had a chance to be distracted by the Bolzer hype), but Sólstafir proved something that day which we’d only heard through word of mouth: they know how to play a great live show. Where many atmospheric metal acts cast a wet blanket over their audiences, Sólstafir know how to work a crowd. Their music is good, they know it, and most importantly really seem to enjoy playing it, and that makes all the difference, especially coupled with good lighting and a great audience.
Two, the band released Ótta, their fifth full-length, to a greater press buzz on these shores than the group had received previously. My gut tells me that the album’s promotional push was largely based on faith earned at the band’s MDF performance. Ótta is an imperfect album: it’s a bit too long, less ambitious than its predecessor, and (worst for promoters and press) largely plays in tidal pools whose tides have receded—post-metal’s pioneers have disbanded (Isis) or abandoned the spotlight (Neurosis), prog metal has jumped the shark (Mastodon, Opeth), and at the same time that black-gaze has decided to drop the black (Alcest), thinking man’s black metal’s good name has been tarnished by its own would-be saviors (Inquisition, Blake Judd). It doesn’t look like Otta is sweeping many lists.
None of that matters. As much as it is a piece of art, Ótta is an advertisement, its subliminal message is: “see this band live!”
Which I did, at Seattle’s Barboza, in the basement of the famous Neumos, alongside Islander and assorted NCS friends and family. It’s a cozy, well-lit venue, sporting a classy curtain backdrop—a far cry from the typically dingy venues that populate even a music mecca like Seattle. That said, Barboza doesn’t normally host such abrasive music—I’m more familiar with the venue hosting emerging pop and RnB artists (such as my beloved Autre Ne Veut last year).
To call the lineup hyped would be an understatement: opener Mortals, an all-female three-piece Brooklyn black metal outfit who not only put out a pretty damn good sophomore album, Cursed to See the Future on Relapse, but also dropped one hell of an interview with Islander earlier this year (here). Headlining was Arkansas doom troupe Pallbearer, who seem destined for perpetual critical acclaim—their debut, Sorrow and Extinction, made seemingly every year-end list in 2012, and their new LP Foundations of Burden seems destined to top every single year end list this year Very well, I’m exaggerating, and the new YOB is giving them a run for their money, but still, the groundswell of acclaim that follows Pallbearer is rivaled only by Deafheaven’s, and while the aforementioned font-slinging blackgazers’ underground support seems to be eroding as they gain wider success, Pallbearer maintain the populist vote.
The battle between metal culture and mainstream music culture exists, albeit mostly in in the minds of those of us in the metal community. To the booking agents and tastemakers, it’s a numbers game, profit vs. loss, and this booking felt like a definite victory. Here a bunch of angelic-voiced rednecks, Icelandic cowboys, and screaming members of the New York female intelligencia were favored to pull enough numbers to play in the cool kids’ sandbox. Still, the victory carried an air of defeat—the main stage hosted another metal band, a local tribute to Black Sabbath: covers of 40-year-old songs by Christian cokeheads, instead of the voice of youth. Albiet, the members of Pallbearer joked demo two stage, “There’s a Black Sabbath tribute down here too!” But statements like that straddle the thin line between self-deprecating humor and admitting one’s own faults and insecurities in public.
Playing in close quarters, however, had the added value of intimacy, something which served the bands well. As much as extreme metal music can be about ethereal natures and abstract things, many bands benefit from the visceral up-close-and personal approach.
That’s true of Mortals, who blitzed through a quick set culled from their debut. In my headphones, Mortals remind me most of Goatwhore’s compressed black-thrash attack, albeit spread out over longer, more labyrinthine arrangements. Live, however, I found a sense of space and non-linear dynamics that weren’t readily apparent on the record—sometimes the women in Mortals are content to drop into an extended two-or-three-note groove and let the distortion do the talking while they play with the voicings of their fretted strings. I love it when bands do this tastefully—it’s probably Matt Pike of High on Fire’s specialty, and Mortals would make a great pairing with that project. Which isn’t to say that Mortals pull their punches. They played the most vicious set, thanks in no small part to drummer Caryn Havlik, who spends enough time headbanging and throwing up the invisible oranges while drumming to qualify her as the band’s cheerleader as well as rhythm section.
Then, with minimal changeover, Sólstafir took the stage. They were applauded as champions before playing a note. Word travels fast these days. Their set at Barboza was every bit as dynamic as the one at MDF, albeit this time sporting a few choice cuts from Otta, including opener “Náttfari”, which takes its time simmering in a fog of E-bowed guitar before erupting into a fiery gallop. The ability to write songs that transition easily from mellow to aggressive is what sets their music apart—it’s less stark, such as the changes Opeth makes, but more subtle. Alchemical. The band is a master’s-course in blending styles, such as hiding little rockabilly drum segments, or arabesque guitars in songs like “Svartir Sandar.” The group even displayed a little No Clean Singing love by picking Islander out of the crowd and dedicating a rollicking rendition of “Fjara” to him, before mopping up the crumbs with “Goddess of the Ages.”
Even in that small room, Sólstafir seemed beloved—women reached out their hands to touch frontman Aðalbjörn Tryggvason’s hands during his brief foray into rock star 101 tropes during “Goddess of the Ages.” Sólstafir did such a stellar job, actually, that we departed for a nightcap near the beginning of Pallbearer’s set. I confess, I don’t really like Pallbearer’s music, so there was no love lost on my end; however, their music felt perfunctory after Sólstafir set. In the magazines, it’s Pallbearer’s time because we’ve all collectively more-or-less agreed to give it to them in the absence of another Sunbather. On the stage, however, it is Sólstafir time because they keep reaching out and grabbing it.
REVIEW BY ISLANDER
I’m going to keep my own thoughts about this show relatively brief. BadWolf and Gemma have already expressed many of my own reactions, and they write better than I do anyway. But I do want to get a few things out of my head and into print, because this event was one of the best musical experiences I can remember.
I say “musical experiences” because what made the night so special was not merely the sounds and sights of what was happening on stage. I had the good fortune of spending the evening in the company of some wonderful friends, I met people I’ve wanted to meet for a long time, and I had some great conversations. All of that, along with the music, are inseparable parts of a night I think I’ll always remember.
Another integral part of what made the night so special was the venue itself. When I first heard that this show would be at Barboza, I was puzzled. I thought for sure this line-up would be booked at the much larger space upstairs (Neumos) — and if the world were a just place, it would have been, and that Black Sabbath cover show would have been at Barboza. But I’m not complaining — the chance to see these three bands in an “intimate” space was ideal for me, even if it was possibly less remunerative for the bands. The one downside to the Barboza space is that it’s long and narrow, and the show was sold out — which means that if you left the front of the room between sets, it was tough to get your good vantage point back (as eventually happened to me).
Like BadWolf, I was a fan of Mortals long before this show was scheduled. I really enjoyed Cursed To See the Future, and I had a blast interviewing the three members of the band in an extended Facebook chat back last summer. I had high hopes for their set, and they didn’t let me down. Their live show had tremendous energy, and I was especially impressed by how tight the performance was. It’s one thing to nail intricate changes in rhythm and mood in the studio, it’s another to do it on stage. These three women have got the chops to do that. And although I later found out from vocalist/bassist Lesley Wolf that she had been fighting an illness that affected her voice, you wouldn’t have known it — her acid shrieks behind the mic were positively hair-raising, and a fitting complement to the black, blasting power of the music.
I mentioned great conversations earlier. The ones we had with Lesley and drummer Caryn Havlik after the Mortals set were among the ones I had in mind. Such nice people! And the parting bear hug I got from Caryn Havlik (who’s about half my size) was one of the high points of the night.
I don’t really have the words to express what I felt about Sólstafir‘s set. I’ve made no secret about how much I admire this band’s music — I’m guessing I’ve written about them more than any other over the five years NCS has been in existence. And I thought their set at MDF 2014 was one of the highlights of an amazingly strong festival. But it was only after seeing this show at Barboza from the second row of the crowd in front of the stage that I finally realized what I hadn’t fully admitted to myself before: Sólstafir are currently my favorite band on the planet. And I say that as someone who spends the vast majority of his time listening to music that’s far more extreme than what’s to be found on the likes of Svartir Sandar and Ótta.
I was just completely caught up in the music, completely overwhelmed by both its beauty and its power, mesmerized by both its dark, transcendent melodies and its shattering heaviness. Some time back I wrote that on stage these dudes are the epitome of cool, and that remains true. They’ve got the aura of rock stars without being calculated or phony about it in the least. They’re not ostentatious or narcissistic — they’re dead serious most of the time — but they’ve still got tremendous charisma. The fact that the music is so remarkable undoubtedly has something to do with that, but it’s not the whole story.
I mentioned great conversations — I had a long, memorable one with Addi Tryggvason before Sólstafir‘s set, and even though I’m older than dirt, I still got such a fanboy thrill when he later dedicated the performance of “Fjara” to me. Since that’s one of my favorite songs ever, by anyone, it meant a lot. Finally, I also got the chance to meet the band’s drummer “Gummi” Pálmason, with whom I’ve swapped many messages over the web, and I treasure the inscribed CD of Ótta he gave me. Sometimes (maybe most of the time), it’s too much to expect that the people whose music you adore will be genuinely nice people, too. When it turns out to be true, it’s icing on the cake.
And speaking of long-deferred meetings, I finally got to meet Gemma Alexander, whose interviews and show reports from Iceland have appeared here in the past and whose own blog is one of my favorites on the web. It turns out she was standing right in front of me during Sólstafir‘s set and I didn’t realize it until she introduced herself right after it ended. I fear that I probably hit her in the back of the head a few times as I was headbanging.
I’m afraid we’ve given Pallbearer short shrift in these reviews. It really wasn’t their fault. I happen to be a fan of their two albums and I’m happy to see all the recognition the latest one has been receiving in multitudes of year-end lists. But after Sólstafir‘s set, I and my companions made our way outside for some air and some smokes and, most importantly, to talk about what we had just seen and heard. I think we were all feeling kind of awestruck.
By the time we made our way back into Barboza, Pallbearer were already playing and there was a dense crowd packed into the length of the narrow space between us and the stage. So we just continued talking over drinks at the bar, with Pallbearer’s music alternately rumbling and soaring all around us (Brett Campbell really does have an amazing voice). This is also when we ran into Lesley and Caryn from Mortals, and I wasn’t going to miss the chance to talk with them.
So yes, all things considered, this night was one completely unforgettable musical experience. I wish we had gotten our shit together to get these reflections finished and posted sooner than today — because there’s only one more gig left on this tour: tonight, in St. Louis, at Firebird. If you happen to be within striking distance of that venue tonight, get your ass over there. You won’t regret it.