I tend to have two attitudes towards gigs: either over-hyping massively to the point that the actual thing (no matter how good) still feels like a disappointment, or being disinterested in a gig (for whatever arbitrary reason) to the point that going seems like a chore, and it turning out to be one of the absolute best gigs of the year. Sólstafir kicking off their Berdreyminn tour at Heaven falls very much into the latter category.
Arstiđir are the first surprise: as much as Icelandic (black) metal is building up an international reputation, you don’t hear so much about what I can only describe as chamber folk, particularly in the metal world. And yet, they fit right in. They aren’t heavy so much as dense, guitars and strings creating a hypnotic mood that almost fills the air like a fog. It sits in direct counterpoint to the vocals, fragile, tender, yet never failing to sound uplifting, in particular on ‘Someone Who Cares’. They’re a band who could just as easily take the stage in a majestic cathedral, or the opulent surrounds of a town hall, where the architecture would match the grandness and beauty of their sound. It seems fitting that this is the first time some of these songs are being performed outside of train stations, because the arches beneath Charing Cross both provide amazing acoustics and match them in grandiosity. In fact, I’m both morally and legally obliged to say that it’s a match made in Heaven.
Myrkur is an artist that I’d never quite clicked with, either live or on record. As interesting as the folk is, and as well done as the bursts of black metal are, the two sounds always seemed to me like two discrete entities in her music, never quite meshing into a cohesive sound. And with expectations set reasonably low, I’m slightly surprised at just how impressive a performance it turned out to be. Live, the drone aspects of the sound are much more prominent; a dense nihilism that hangs over the wandering melancholy of the Nordic folk material. It’s a juxtaposition that brings out the best in both styles, helped in no small part by the acoustics of Heaven, and gives the sporadic detours into black metal a sense of finality – a feeling that the crushing heaviness has been unrestrained into something savage, and leaves the crowd speechless. Based on this performance, Myrkur is one of the most interesting and essential live acts in metal (at least the atmospheric ends) today.
Sólstafir aren’t a band I ever doubted – Berdreyminn is just the most recent in a series of stunning albums – but what did surprise me is quite how good they were. They open with ‘Silfur-Refur’, a good tone-setter for the rest of the night, and the first of many songs that drive home just how catchy the vocal melodies this band has created can be, even when you (like, presumably, the vast number of people in the crowd) don’t speak a word of Icelandic. ‘Ótta’ and ‘Lágnætti’, the two cuts from 2014’s Ótta album show off a completely different vibe – both much longer songs, neither initially guitar driven (the former banjo led, the latter featuring extensive piano), not so much twisting as surging; the climactic piano section to ‘Lágnætti’ is one of the most essential and poignant moments in a repertoire that isn’t exactly lacking in that sort of thing, a feel that is amplified in the live setting. ‘Fjara’ is an achingly beautiful, cathartic experience beneath Heaven’s arches. Addi Tryggvason introduces ‘Bláfjall’ with a frank and honest speech about depression, and the benefits of talking about it, and receives possibly the largest and most appreciative cheer of the night. Tryggvason then proceeds to spend most of the song, and closer ‘Goddess of the Ages’, in a trance-like state at the front of the stage, dancing/swaying/feeling the music. It’s nice to see that their music can even have that effect on the people that wrote it. All in all, it’s a show that flashes by, and you find yourself a couple of hours later still slightly hypnotised, emotionally exhausted, and inexplicably trying to sing ‘Ísafold’ in phonetic approximations to Icelandic in front of Charing Cross station.