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The Epic Splendor of Heroic Despair (or “Sólstafir’s Ótta Rocks!”)

January 17, 2015

Although I read them on near-daily basis, I’m not much for writing album reviews.  Sometimes I tell stories in which a particular album plays a role and I will often offer up a personal view of the album within that context, but I tend to shy away from standalone reviews.  This choice reflects an array of insecurities, to include the idea that my individual tastes are too personal to be of value to others, doubts about my ability to “hear” and subsequently describe in words distinct facets of musical compositions and arrangements in an informative way, and a sense that I tend to like everything and thus would fill pages with indistinguishable, thesaurus-heavy babble about how every album is “excellent” and “moving” and “rocks.”

There is no problem or lament here because the truth is that I don’t want to write album reviews.  I am self-aware enough to recognize that I am self-absorbed enough that the main topic of most of my non-work-related writing is me.  For whatever reason, I tend to view myself and my history through the prism of my music listening habits and fandom.  Therefore, much of what I write revolves around music.  I end up with what is basically a personal diary framed within a (written) musical soundtrack.  This occasional creative outlet brings me joy and, in my mind, lends my internal life narrative a coveted epic nature that, for causes even I don’t understand, I am unable to embrace otherwise despite my wonderful family, world travels, enviable experiences, and interesting job.

All of this is prologue to my advising that I have recently come upon an excellent album that rocks in a unique way, and which has moved me to do something I seldom do, attempt to write an album review.  The album is Ótta, released by the band Sólstafir in 2014.  I purchased the CD after being enticed by descriptions and praise of it on some favorite blogs and album review sites.  Sólstafir’s Icelandic origin was also a particular draw given that I recently lived vicariously through my son’s two-month unpaid internship there, which included a weeklong solo road trip through the island nation’s glorious landscapes.  (Is it healthy to be happy for, but concurrently a little resentful of, one’s own child for being first to have an experience that one has always dreamed about for oneself?)

Sólstafir - Ótta

I have been listening to Ótta a lot since it arrived in the mail roughly a week ago.  I’ve had it booming from the speakers while taking my new subcompact – a Honda Fit! – on its first highway drive, streaming from headphones in a darkened room as well as during a late-night winter’s walking of the dog through cold, empty northern Virginia streets, and playing in my study now as I type.  Each time it has drawn me in, demanding my active attention despite being what I would describe as atmospheric.  It is background music, but only for a foreground that it creates itself.  I hear vastness, the sound of movement through the emptiness of space, but the vessel on which I travel isn’t some lonely metal container, it is Earth itself transporting me through the heavens.  I feel concurrently lost in the infinite expanse of a cold universe and warmed in the embrace of nature, nature in which I myself form an integral part.

The songs are all sung in Icelandic and thus outwardly unintelligible to me.  I have purposefully avoided seeking translations of song names or lyrics and do not know whether the album’s eight tracks are presented by the band as being of a piece or as a collection of individual, discrete offerings.  I personally experience it as one cohesive work, the lack of literal understanding of the words allowing me to create my own mutable narrative at each listen.  For all I know, it is in actuality a concept record about nomadic sheep-herding, but the overall theme in which I internally frame it is one of “heroic despair.”  To me, it is the joyous sound of humankind’s billion-fold individual decisions to arise anew each day to meet fleeting, immediate challenges even in the face of inevitable existential doom.  It’s cosmically terrible, and it is freaking beautiful.

Sólstafir the band, journeying through the vast cosmos aboard Spaceship Earth      (photo lifted from

Sólstafir the band, journeying through the vast cosmos aboard Spaceship Earth (photo lifted from

While it is generally guitars that appeal to me, in this case it is Sólstafir’s blending of the sound of acoustic piano and classical strings into the mix that most moves me.  Described variously online as pagan or heathen rock, “post metal,” and atmospheric progressive metal — among many other possibly made-up categories — Sólstafir exists within this new century’s wonderfully diverse and wide-ranging “metal” genre.  Within that sphere, Ótta has made many critics’ lists of best “extreme” releases for 2014.  The only thing extreme about this music however is its extreme beauty.  My classical music loving uncle should listen to this.  My piano jazz loving dad should listen to this.  My epic power metal loving son and pop-leaning-but-eclectic daughter should listen to this.  My long-suffering, salsa and cumbia loving wife should listen to this.  My Top-40-because-it’s-there, non-music-aficionado friends should listen to this.  Indeed, all who read should simply heed my call, assent to my tastes, and hop aboard the Ótta train.

Ok, I’ll stop here before inadvertently ruining any incentive I might be creating to give Ótta a spin by ham-handedly mentioning that, while sharing neither style nor mood, the disc at moments weirdly brings to my mind British art-school rock band* Franz Ferdinand, and sincerely meaning it as a positive reference.

Here’s the official video of Ótta’s first track “Lágnætti” to start you on the path toward what you should be doing right now:

*Note: “art-school rock band” as a descriptor for Franz Ferdinand cribbed from Universal Music Publishing Group marketing material found online.



From → Ideas, Music

  1. Enjoyed both the intro and the review. What would it take to encourage further tentative ventures into this self-referential realm?
    PS> re your parenthetical question, I believe the answer to by ‘Yes’. Isn’t the goal to allow our children more options with less angst than we managed?

    • Thanks much. Maybe the answer is a self-imposed boost in self-confidence to go along with my self-aware self-referential self-absorption?

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