It’s hard not to be fascinated by the bizarre artistic turns musicians sometimes take. Some of my favorites are disco Kiss, Vegas Elvis, hair metal Celtic Frost and New Wave Alice Cooper. Change can be interesting even if it only appeals to a cult following that latches on to these weird turns. Going into Sólstafir’s Berdreyminn, an album by a former pagan black metal band that has been going in a more progressive direction for years now, to find out they’re no heavier than Muse is really pushing the boundaries for me. Not that it’s as dramatic as Celtic Frost’s late-’80s turn, of course. Still, it’s hard not to wish there were more hints of the mighty gallop they once embraced.
At the album’s best moments, the Icelandic band sounds like a cross between the Cure and Neurosis. The production is a little weird, as the guitar often sits oddly in the mix and the drums almost sound as if they were programmed. The fact they’re incorporating a dance-friendly beat could further this illusion. They blend pop hooks with prog inflections, though the vocals are not as flamboyant as Muse’s Matt Bellamy and are belted out in an emotive yet gruff baritone that seeks to reach beyond its range. “Hula” finds the atmospherics becoming much thicker and darker, more of a sonic shadow cast over the song before it relaxes down into dreamy reverb-filled, shoegaze-like guitars. The vocals, meanwhile, hold a firmer melody than those of fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós, and though distorted chords ring out in the background, one would be hard pressed to call this rock much less metal.
It’s not until “Naros” that something chugs into place to tie this band to their metal roots. It’s a moment reminiscent of where many metal bands found themselves in the ’90s, trying to find their identity when alternative music got big. The song that follows is somewhat of a power ballad as it starts with a more delicate piano piece and works its way up gathering intensity as it progresses. They lay it on thick with the keyboards going into “Dyrafjorour,” then bring in a very Pink Floyd guitar solo, though without as immaculate a guitar tone. The vocals, sung in Icelandic, don’t quite pair well with melody they are trying to employ, offering a reminder that cool riffs alone do not make a good song. There’s more Floydian sound on “Ambatt,” which finds the softer vocal touch working better than some of the harder rocking moments. And while a touch of the Sólstafir of old returns in “Blafjall,” it occurs a little too late to really be all that satisfying.
Considering the changes Sólstafir has undergone over the years, it probably shouldn’t be all that hard for longtime listeners to embrace where they’ve come. It’s essentially a very natural progression from where they’ve been over the past few albums. It’s a much more accessible record, though far from a radio friendly one, still a safe distance from commercial rock radio’s format. That can only be a good thing.