Gig line-up: Tropic Of Xhao, Sólstafir
Venue: The Arts Centre, Colchester
Date: 12 June 2017
I can’t quite believe it, given that it’s June, but this is my first gig of 2017. I know, you don’t have to tell me how pathetic that is, but with a young family, I don’t get out as much as I used to. However, for a band of the calibre of Sólstafir, I’ll make the effort. The fact that they were playing at the Colchester Arts Centre, a local venue and one of my favourites, meant that my attendance was written in the stars.
So was it worth it?
The answer is a resounding yes. But first, I had to negotiate the opening act. I’d never heard of Tropric of Xhao before and, after doing a little research, I found out that they are a local Essex-based psychedelic band. But that’s about all.
So, after negotiating the rush-hour traffic in England’s oldest recorded town to get to the venue early, I joined a relatively small audience to check out the entirety of the half-hour set from the mysterious locals. Unfortunately, I kind of wish I had spent longer in the traffic, because I was not very impressed.
Firstly, the sound was not great and so it was difficult at times to discern exactly what was going on. What I heard was a trio comprised of a guitarist/vocalist, drummer and electronics that seemed to play a kind of sludgy, doom-infused psychedelia with electronic elements. Only, it wasn’t that engaging or that well executed if I’m being entirely honest. The final nail in the coffin for Tropic of Xhao was the almost complete lack of charisma or interaction with the audience. It meant that as they exited the stage, the response from the crowd was muted at best. Hopefully, time will prove me wrong where this band are concerned.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long for the main event to turn the evening around. As the quartet of Aðalbjörn “Addi” Tryggvason (vocals, guitar), Sæþór Maríus “Pjúddi” Sæþórsson (guitar), Svavar “Svabbi” Austmann (bass) and Hallgrímur Jón “Grimsi” Hallgrímsson (drums) entered stage right to the sound of ‘Nattfari’ as the backing track, I actually had chills, brought on by a heightened level of excitement and expectation.
Sólstafir may not be the most energetic of bands on stage but shrouded in lashings of smoke and with the stained glass window illuminated by the setting sun behind them, the atmospherics were just about perfect. And the presence of the quartet was on-point too, with both Sæþórsson and Austmann bedecked in their striking hats, with the latter sporting a pair of Blues Brothers-style shades and trademark pig tails. The intensity of Tryggvason couldn’t be ignored either, whether it was the expressive manner in which he played his v-shaped guitar or the passion he oozed as he sang in his distinctive style.
As the sounds of the backing track intro faded, in burst ‘Silfur Refur’ the opening track from the new album ‘Berdreyminn’. Immediately, I am transported to the rugged wilderness of Sólstafir’s Icelandic homeland. The mix was as clear and vibrant as I was led to believe from what I was privileged to have earlier heard of the sound check.
And, as the title track of the wonderful album, ‘Otta’, complete with banjo and sublime melodies, it became obvious that I was in the presence of a very accomplished band. What was also obvious by this relatively early stage in proceedings was just how vibrant and powerful Sólstafir’s music is in the live arena. But then again, I shouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest by this. On record, it is beautiful but on stage, the beauty was joined by that intangible x-factor that meant that it came alive and took on a whole new energy and intense presence.
The heavier elements of Sólstafir’s music sounded even heavier, spikier and all-encompassing. So tracks like ‘Love Is the Devil’ and ‘She Destroys Again’, both taken from the 2009 album ‘Köld’, came across as more urgent and impactful than I’d ever heard them sound before. Equally, those walls of post-rock sound that are an unmistakeable feature of the Sólstafir sound threatened to engulf the congregation on more than one occasion.
Happily, as their rendition of the gorgeously atmospheric and poignant ‘Nattmal’ demonstrated, the quartet were also able to convey the subtlety of their music expertly, taking the sadly rather modest crowd along with them for an emotional journey of frankly epic proportions. In fact, their ability to keep the audience rapt when the music was treading a more minimalist path was as rewarding and impressive as any other part of this performance.
The icing on the cake for me however was towards the end of the show when, sandwiched between the glorious ‘Isafold’ and ‘Pale Rider’, Sólstafir delivered a stunning and rare rendition of ‘Necrologue’. Written a decade ago in homage to a friend that committed suicide due to ongoing mental health problems, Tryggvason dedicated the song to anyone who was also suffering similar symptoms. Long term readers will be familiar with my struggles in this respect and so, as the sombre and mournful song began, those chills and goosebumps returned in force.
All too quickly via ‘Goddess Of The Ages’, the 90-minute set came to a close. However, it did what it set out to achieve, certainly where I was concerned. I was captivated throughout, transported to the rugged natural beauty of Iceland and thoroughly swept up in the emotion of the evening. There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the presence of greatness and judging by a few of the faces exiting the deconsecrated church in Colchester alongside me, I wasn’t the only one positively affected by Sólstafir’s unique magic.