When most people think of Iceland, it appears in their mind's eye as remote, unspoiled and strange—a place where ancient orifices spew random liquid, elves tamper with the road, and the people speak in what you'd swear was Old Norse. Its Martian landscapes, black sands, and midnight sun have inspired some of the weirdest artists on earth, among them Björk, Sigur Rós and Of Monsters of Men, and Solstafir—Reykjavik's 90s black metallers turned current progressive giants—have more than earned their addition to this oddball hall of fame. Their upcoming new record, Berdreyminn (Bare-Dreamer), is an absolute cracker—an absolute epic that's neither rock, nor metal, nor post-punk, but manages to emulate all of them at once.
Listening to those haunting, cathartic tracks, it's hard to believe that Solstafir began back in 1995, during black metal's notorious Second Wave, and their latest offering takes them even further from their point of origin. This is a soundtrack to Iceland, a journey through the human psyche that flits from kill-yourself shoegaze to orchestral rock 'n' roll with huge, progressive buildups and eerie soundscapes. One of the most alien things about this band though, is their singer Aðalbjörn "Addi" Tryggvason. He looks like something straight out of the sagas crossed with Charles Manson, and his voice is positively skaldic. He likes airplanes, shouting, has been known to smuggle booze across international borders, and today, he's your tour guide, because how the hell could we not talk about Iceland?
"We're all related, yeah," he says, addressing the mysteries of Icelandic DNA. "There's only 330,000 people here now. When I was a kid, it was only 250,000 and they even came up with apps on your phone—you'd see a girl in a bar you fancied, and you'd say 'Hey, here's my phone, we can Bluetooth each other and we'll see how related we are. Ok you're safe—we can go home!' You have to understand we're a fairly young nation. Norway ruled us for a few hundred years. Denmark ruled us for a few hundred, Greenland is still under the crown of Denmark. The British Empire used to rule the world. France—they used to rule the world. We have nothing in common with this stuff! We were fucking sheep and eating dirt until the beginning of the 18th century. I mean, my girlfriend's grandmother lived in a dirt house!"
Addi himself hails from Ísafjörður, a town in Iceland's Westfjords best known for its fishing, black mountains, and in darker days, its passion for witch-hunting. In nearby Hólmavík you'll even find a Museum of Witchcraft, which is home to an invisible boy. The region receives an average of four hours of sunshine for two months of the year, and six feet of snow for the rest. It's a place he hints at in Berdreyminn's dramatic finisher, "Bláfjall."
"Black Mountain," he translates. "That's about growing up in a town [where] you despise this place, you hate everything that it stands for and everyone in it. You think it was the worst thing that happened to you, that everybody treated you badly and you were the only victim in this town. You leave this apocalyptic home and something on your journey occurs that becomes an awakening or spiritual journey.
You decide you're gonna go back to the town that you fucking hated and you realize it's the most beautiful, peaceful thing on the planet. Two meters of snow for six months a year and black mountains all around it," he continues. "That was just reality."
The song "D ý rafjor ð ur" points to another local landmark. "Nú falla öll vötn til Dýrafjarðar," says Addi, quoting from the tragic Gísla Saga— the tale of an outlaw hunted down after thirteen years on the run. "It means all waters now fall towards Dýrafjörður—or some things can never be taken back - It's too late to return." There's something that resonates with the metaphor of "D ý rafjor ð ur" given the recent history of Solstafir. It was in Reykjavik, some 300 miles to the south where Addi would join forces with the band's original drummer and founder, Guðmundur Óli Pálmason, who it's important to note was forced out of the band by his fellow members during a very public spat in 2015. Whatever the facts are, the situation has some uncanny parallels with the very same Gísla Saga, where the story's protagonist is ejected from society and spends the rest of his life in a blood feud with his own family. Speculation aside, the band's first full lineup consisting of Tryggvason, Pálmason, bassist Svavar Austman and guitarist Sæþór Maríus Sæþórsson endured for almost 20 years and was extremely fruitful. Fans can only hope that they bury the hatchet one day—and not in the Viking sense.
Solstafir's metamorphosis from icy black metal cult to the outlandish rockers they are today began in 2009. Köld (which was released by the same original lineup) also marked the beginning of their return from singing in English to Icelandic. "Our rehearsal space had no opening windows and we were sweating our asses off," remembers Addi. "There was no air conditioning or anything. There was a porn store beneath us. We'd be rehearsing like madmen and DVDs would be dropping off the shelves because of the bass vibrations. There's so much stuff on there, experimental stuff, Ennio Morricone, Fields of the Nephilim. I was always trying to make rock 'n' roll epic. I'm a rock n' roller—that's what my favorite music is. Rock 'n' roll isn't really epic, and epic music isn't rock 'n' roll, so that's always what I wanted to do. The most common guitar chord in rock n roll and heavy metal is the fifth, right? We don't use that. It's banned! The fifth is boring. If you're Motorhead, it's fine. If you're Solstafir, it's bad."
He continues: "It was an accident that the album was called Köld. By the time the vocals were recorded, I sang that song in English and it was called The Curse of the Cold Greek. The whole Köld album is in English and I wanted to try something in Icelandic. I had written some miserable stuff, basically how I felt. I wanted to try, kind of knowing that we wouldn't use it, but the guys were like, 'No, this is something…'
Berdreyminn, by comparison, is totally in Icelandic, which only seems to add to its weird and wonderful qualities. The band's ongoing tribute to their native land and language is clearly heard in one of the album's standout tracks, "Ísafold," which I'm told is another word for Iceland, literally 'frozen earth'. One of the most haunting and impressive tracks by far though, is "Ambátt." When I ask Addi to explain the story behind it, he looks forlorn and slightly reluctant. It turns out that this particular track is about domestic violence. "It's the word for a female slave," he says "When it gets close to you, that someone that you love or care for tells you their story of how they're living their life as a theater, because no one could see, no one could know… 'is the kid hearing this? Will I go to the emergency room in the morning? I can't go to work like this.' The other six songs are sort of on the same family tree regarding all sorts of mental issues of disorders—sociopathic or narcissistic behavior, severe depression, addiction, alcoholism, surviving suicide attempts."
The lyrics are deeply personal, littered with raw emotion and metaphor, but their delivery in Icelandic, an archaic language that few of us can ever hope to learn, ensures that many of its themes are well and truly hidden, perhaps deliberately. Knowing that this may the only real opportunity to understand some of the concepts hidden beneath the ice, we return to "Ambátt." Is domestic violence a problem in Iceland?
"Yeah I think it's everywhere," he says. "It's very much a taboo, and it's too hard to escape. The shame is so unbearable that you will put on your best play to never reveal it. It's hidden and it's not really what people see in movies. It's not just 'punch her in the stomach instead of the face,' it's a lot of controlling, like you think you own the person." He pauses, and looks in another direction "Even though I can write a song about it, talking too much about it, it gets more difficult because I wrote that lyric from a first-hand account. The more I talk about it, it feels like I'm saying too much. Then again, I shouldn't think like that—this is a taboo and it's very sick shit and sick shit should be uncovered and pulled up from the ground. I don't really want to be a political figure, but this is human rights stuff. Women couldn't fucking vote a couple of years ago! You could shoot homosexuals in the head a couple of years ago. Black people weren't allowed inside the fucking bus! And now downgrading women is still a big thing here. Equal rights for equal payment… we have a long way to go, man."
So what about this progressive utopia we hear about when people talk about Iceland? The island nation boasts the world's first democracy, first female president, and the world's first openly gay female president, after all. "Yeah, we had the first elected female president in the world in the 80s, who served for the maximum amount of terms. We had a lesbian prime minister. Nobody thought anything about that. Well of course, no matter what kind of shire you're living in, there's always a couple idiots everywhere, but the majority didn't give a shit. Religion—we don't give a shit."
Inevitably, we turn our attention to the latter, along with global politics. "Look at what happened in America," he says. "You have Donald Trump and a couple of white guys signing a law that makes abortion for rape victims, or abortion in general illegal±that's just fucked up! What are you gonna do next! Are we gonna go back to when black people can't ride the bus? Or 'women can't vote because they'll vote against us'? It's just so easy to get angry. Some will always tell you that you should just stop complaining, because the world has never been a peaceful place. But you can't give up trying to make it that way. It's ridiculous that a president who was known to have contact with fucked up stuff like the KKK does not withdraw his support of right wing supremacists—there are no words for it! When all this Trump stuff happened, I had to skip watching the news. There's nothing you can do about it sitting in your apartment in Reykjavik, but I just had to step away. It destroys your peace of mind… and you can't put a price on peace of mind."
As they say in Iceland "Aldrei er góð vísa of oft kveðini:" 'never is a good verse too often said,' and while the realities of the 21st century rage around this little conversation, some of us can only dream of a better future. For those that dream, there's Berdreyminn.
Cover photo by Lilja Draumland