SÓLSTAFIR and KÆLAN MIKLA at The Dakota Tavern, Toronto (The Taste of Iceland Festival)

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In an extremely mixed environment like Toronto, ethnic festivals have a pivotal role to integrate people from all over the globe. Unique foods, music, dance styles and mythologies are thrown in a huge cauldron and spread across the city throughout the year, bringing our collective mind to not only leave our differences behind, but to embrace them and thrive with them.

The Taste of Iceland may not be as big as the Taste of the Danforth or Salsa on St. Claire, but when it comes to experiencing a different culture, size is hardly the most important factor. This year, the festival happened between November 14 and 17, and included an Icelandic food tasting, an expo on the literature of the country and a short film festival. On the music front, an event dubbed “Reykjavik Calling” was held on November 16 at the Dakota Tavern, in the heart of town. Two promising, prominent and very different bands were brought to represent the Scandinavian sound: Sólstafir, a Reykjavik based rock band famed for their atmospheric Icelandic Rock and Roll, and Kælan Mikla, a dark wave/synth punk all-female band.

Presented by radio partner CIUT, Kælan Mikla stepped on stage at 08pm sharp, but their show was sadly short-lived: singer Laufey Soffia had been ill all day, and could not go on after the first song. They had just played sold out shows in London, and their path seems laid out for more good news for the band in the near future. However, their fugacious show was an eye opener about the ruthless touring schedule that bands are subject to these days. Touring life takes a toll on one’s health, no matter how young you are, and these girls didn’t look a day past 25. The one song they played showed promise though, with gloomy synths that evoke Joy Division and Bauhaus, and a stage presence that reminded me of a Nina Hagen protégé. Here’s hoping that they can come back to these shores under more favorable circumstances. The crowd seemed really into their sound, and curious to find out why Laufey, Sólveig Matthildur-Kristjánsdóttir (synthesizers) and Margret Rósa Dóru-Harrysdóttir (bass) caught the attention of The Cure’s Robert Smith.

The cozy atmosphere of the Dakota Tavern and the fact that the event was free, meant that whoever wanted to be allowed in had to be there early, and the crowd did not disappoint. The venue was full, but not to the point where it would be impossible to move. Not bad for a cold Saturday night, and impressive considering how different the two acts were from each other. The crowd was a mix of metal-heads, hipsters and alt rock fans – with many styles sometimes mixed in the same person – and the next concert that anyone in the house that night could attend would be anything from Bring me the Horizon to Behemoth, from The Struts to Machine Head. The abridged set of Kælan Mikla meant that we would get an extended set from Sólstafir, and they surely did not disappoint.

Sólstafir brought their mix of fuzzy guitars, screamed vocals and emotionally charged songs, chafed by Addi Tryggvason on guitars and vocals. Kicking things off with the slow-paced and hypnotic “Silfur-Refur”, they had the crowd at the palm of their hands from the first note to the last. Few bands have changed their sound as dramatically as these Icelanders, which started as a black metal outfit and steadily transitioned to an alternative, post-rock act. Their music has a mesmerizing effect, with some sections having the same chord being played over and over, and Addi’s emotional delivery completing their musical palette.

One of the highlights of the night was the lengthy “Ótta” (in English, Dead of Night). The lighting of their show is rather dim, which contributes to the sense of being lost and engulfed by the darkness, as evoked by their sound. Thankfully though, the seriousness of their music did not translate into their personalities: Addi told the funny story of their first show in the city, when the nervous front-man called the city “Rotondo”, only to have the whole band make fun of him later. Another high point was the almost poppy “Pale Rider”, which could have been a hit on alternative radio, if it didn’t last for more than eight minutes.

Sólstafir are at that sweet spot in a band’s career, where they’re not yet a legacy band, but already have quite a discography in their pockets, and a few special dates to celebrate. This year marks the 20th anniversary of their album Köld, and such a landmark is of course cause for celebration. Upon mentioning this fact, they proceeded to play the fast and yet depressive “Love is the Devil (and I am in Love)”, a twisted tale of unrequited love that led to sorrow and anger. And one of the most palatable songs of the evening for those not used to heaviness, “Ísafold”, where they channel The Cult and 90’s movie soundtracks, was met with great applause. And speaking of soundtracks, they managed to find the perfect mix of Wim Wenders and Quentin Tarantino films in sonic form, on the trance-indulcing “Fjara”.

A noticeable thing throughout the night was how even in an ethnic festival, designed to bring particular aspects of one’s culture, common themes come out and we realize how close we are to each other in terms of emotion, relationships and mindset. Solstafir’s sound brought that universal quality, which enables us to look a stranger in the eye and say “I get you”. Judging by the acclaim received tonight, it won’t be long until they return to these shores, most likely on a much larger venue.

Photographs by Viktor Yakovlyev

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