SÓLSTAFIR, Black Death (2002, Ketzer)

The skull:
Designing an album cover to look like a liquor label is only clever to the likes of Zakk Wylde, which is to say it’s about as far from actually clever as can be imagined. The only redeeming quality of this jokey design is the downright prehistoric skull on display. With a lower jaw that could impress Nutcracker Man or Jay Leno, this guy looks ready to do some serious chompin’, not to mention some serious partyin’. He’s the sort of lovable oaf you can’t say no to, even if he shows up with a bunch of Icelandic dudes who habitually overstay their welcome.

The music:
Previously, I had only heard more recent Sólstafir records, where the band coast on one or two riffs for interminable lengths, “crafting” 13 minute songs out of raw materials suited for maybe a short intro, at best. I can appreciate, at least on paper, the vibe they try to summon (especially when Rhodes piano is involved), but in practice, those epic endurance tests masquerading as songs reek of hubris and laziness, not to mention a too-evident love of The Church. Fortunately, this early entry to the Sólstafir canon is a peppier, and more succinct, affair. Originally released as a demo but pared down by a couple songs for an EP release, Black Death is a slightly “folky” mix of black, death, and doom metal, played with energy and passion. I’m reminded in places, weirdly, of Hexx’s much-disparaged death metal period, in particular the excellent Morbid Reality. The post-whatever influences (-rock, -punk, so on) that dominate the band’s later albums are present here, but only as seasonings in a mostly metal stew. There’s definitely a spark here that, had I heard this 10 years ago, I would have taken as a sign of a band with big things to come, and I would have been right, I suppose, but the bigness, as it turned out, was not so much in the realm of great ideas, but in that of hype.
— Friar Johnsen

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