Picture the scene, its two thousand and eleven, and the music gods breathe their first breaths into Bristol quartet Svalbard. Those breaths are loaded with turmoil, rage, and angst, by the bucket load. The breaths push forth in to the world an animal, dripping in anger, with a desperate need to pour this on to an unsuspecting audience, and leave them feeling the catharsis that comes from giving your all-encompassing vitriol to the universe.
Now, fast forward nine years, to twenty twenty, and Svalbard are back, on the verge of releasing their third full album, When I Die, Will I Get Better? It’s a good question, and it’s an even better album.
As for the question, who knows, maybe I will, and maybe I won’t, but either way, I won’t know until I get there. In relation to the album, and my previous statement, let me elaborate…
When I Die, Will I Get Better? is the follow up to two thousand and eighteen’s It’s Hard To Have Hope, and on the basis of the previous album, the bar has been set extremely high for this new album to either mirror, or excel. After a last minute label change to the newly formed Church Road Records (who’ve risen from the ashes of blighted Holy Roar), Translation Loss Records (North America) and Tokyo Jupiter Records (Japan) to insure the September release date is still possible. This is the best outcome possible, and also means there’s no delay in getting it out to the hardcore legion of Svalbard fans. Disaster avoided.
Several terms get thrown around when trying to describe Svalbard’s sound, from post-hardcore and post- metal, to a new term for me, melodic hardcore, quite an oxymoron, if ever I heard one. Yet in this context, and for this band, it makes complete sense, that’s exactly how they manifest. The elements of hardcore contradict the more shoegaze moments, but both are equally as relevant, neither forces the other in to submission, and the juxtaposition really creates something unique, and other worldly.
Charismatic front woman Serena Cherry is an absolute joy to listen to, the vocals are often ethereal, and distant, while Liam Phelan’s share of the vocal is abrasive, and heartfelt.The mix of the two shouldn’t work, but it does. Alex Heffernan is the newbie in the band, assuming bass duties, while Mark Lilley’s drumming is absolutely next level, the range is phenomenal, and the passion displayed is imperative to the sound that is Svalbard.
As for the subject matter on the album, its completely relevant to modern culture, the cesspool that life can be, and throughout this opus, the issues are hard hitting, raw, and emotional. Above all, they come from a place of reality, no stone is left unturned, and the true heartfelt outpouring of honesty is truly a revelation to behold.
Right from opener Open Wound, the clash of styles is obvious, the ambient shoegaze feel is so reminiscent of label mates Slow Crush, that’s hard to not draw comparison. This is quickly destroyed, replaced with an outpouring which is far harsher, and heavier in content. As Open Wound plays through, this up/down wave of sound continues, and instantly defines where our journey is going.
It’s light and airy, and by complete parallel it’s uncompromising and aggressive…
A personal favourite of mine, track two, Click Bait, obviously gets its title from a relatively new concept, and if you’re over forty, then it’s quite possibly a completely alien phrase to have heard. It is, however, something we are all very aware of, even if you don’t know the correct term for it. Its sole purpose is to get your attention, and take you on to something else, not so much a distraction, as a detour. Well, the track plays in the same way. We’re led in by the softer vocal, and once invested, the calm is replaced by the intensity of the shift in gear to face melting overdrive. It’s abrasive, urgent, and overwhelmingly emotional. In another setting you would sway toward a comparison with black or death metal in sensibilities, the pace of drumming, coupled with the vocal delivery definitely resonate on that level.
There are tracks which literally make me feel claustrophobic in their unnerving intensity, and I believe it’s the mix of shoegaze and full on hardcore dynamic that achieve this. Tracks like Listen To Someone show the versatility of Svalbard, as when they need to, they can combine the vocal, intertwine them, and produce something both destructive and beautiful at the same time.
As is the feeling throughout the whole album, lines like ‘I’m sick of feeling like a burden’, from Silent Restraint, really drive home the inner turmoil, and outpouring of emotion, sending shivers down my spine. This isn’t just a collection of songs, this is diary additions, it’s a look inside the very essence of the songwriter, and it’s so personal, you feel it a little more every time you catch something new, with every listen.
Titles like What Was She Wearing? and The Currency Of Beauty really help give an insight in to subject matter. It lets us inside twenty-first century judgmental behaviours, and to just how shallow our lives have truly become, while in the belief that we’re in the pursuit of being better people.
By the time album closer Pearlescent comes round, I feel a little car sick, it’s been quite a ride, but it isn’t quite over yet. Again, the synonymous shoegaze beginning pulls me in, but as the co-vocal descends, this time it’s accompanying, and not overwhelming. It helps guide me on, mostly to hit the ‘restart’ button on the stereo once it ends…
The one thing I take from this, and can say unequivocally is this; when this album hits, it hits hard. Its uncompromising, and goes against the grain of everything else that’s been doing the rounds. It’s light and airy, and by complete parallel it’s uncompromising and aggressive. It goes from a gentle breeze in the back of the car, to being trapped in a blender at the flick of a switch. In a world where we’re all going slightly crazy, this is the perfect antidote to really make us stop, sit back, and have a little think about just what role we’re playing in the scheme of things.
If you already know of Svalbard, and like them, I believe you are going to embrace this album, and pull it in to your hearts from the very first listen, and if you aren’t, and you are looking for something abrasive, but heartwarming, and anarchic yet emotional, then this is the album for you. Hell, if you just enjoy old school indie, and all its sensibilities, this could well be your next favourite album of all time.
Scribed by: Lee Beamish