Label: Translation Loss Records Release date: 25-09-2020
Svalbard have the speed and energy of punk, the chugging power of post-metal, and the organized chaos of death metal. Serena Cherry’s blackened vocals often lie between teary-eyed and enraged, her screams always pitch perfect. Every song Svalbard makes sounds a little different, the group tweaking things not just across albums but throughout them. Svalbard have the range to make gloomy ballads as easily as high octane dirges. Frequently, they display this skill during the length of even one song, whole journeys made in under four minutes. Loud, aggressive outbursts elegantly match quiet moments of reflection, vocals lain dead and the drums barely keeping time. These never last long before it’s back to the action again.
Svalbard started making music in Bristol in 2011, the English quartet already releasing their self-titled first EP the following year. The Flightless Birds and Gone Tomorrow EPs both followed this first release in 2013. Then, in 2014, Svalbard worked with Pariso for a split album before Pariso’s split as a band. The songs from this split album and all the songs from previous EPs were eventually combined in 2016’s Discography 2012-2014. The year prior saw Svalbard’s first album release, One Day All This Will End. A few singles and some very successful touring later led to 2018’s It’s Hard To Have Hope. Now, after a recent label change, Svalbard have their newest release, When I Die, Will I Get Better?
Open Wound doesn’t waste time opening as it starts with a serene wail from Serena Cherry backed by squealing guitars. This track shifts between moments of peace and action, Cherry’s vocals sometimes disarmingly soft and others her normal raging screams. It is interesting to hear Svalbard lean so heavily into post-rock when previous entries have been more punk- and metal-influenced. This continues with Click Bait, Cherry’s vocals the lone sound before trilling guitars and pounding drums introduce her vocal change. Something to note is how much care has been given to the guitars this time around. They are now given equal footing with Cherry rather than being behind her. There is a moment of reflection near the end before everything comes crashing back twice as hard until the conclusion.
Throw Your Heart Away starts with surprisingly clear vocals, titular lyrics easily heard over slightly muffled guitars. Soon, the track evolves into something almost proggy, strange rhythms and quick changes keeping the listener on their toes. Another pensive moment near the end here allows Cherry’s vocals to be easily heard again. Behind her, the guitars and drums roll along, demanding an emotional response. Listen To Someone starts quietly and then threatens several times to turn heavier. It always seems to retreat back at the last moment until it finally can’t be held back anymore. This is a somewhat common pattern on this album and it works every time. Cherry’s soft-then-heavy vocals hit just as hard every track, and her and Liam Phelan on guitars make a brilliant team. Mark Lilley’s death metal-influenced drumming is just fast enough to match Alex Heffernan’s beat on bass without being overpowering.
Silent Restraint is anything but, Cherry’s vocals gaining a new and emotional sound, pitched higher and more breathless. Guitars never stop their quick traveling along the scales, the drums fierce and insistent. What Was She Wearing? is a momentary reprieve, slow and echoing guitars underneath Cherry’s softened and lovely vocals. About halfway through, the track slowly builds and flows out in Svalbard’s normal sound, rough and messy and beautiful. The next track, The Currency Of Beauty, feels as though it is missing something. While matching other tracks’ speed and energy, it feels like there is a mismatch between the guitars and drums here. Although still good, it is ironically somewhat weak until it softens up halfway through. The last track on the album, Pearlescent, is also the shortest. Though brief, it is serene and haunting and oddly full of hope, a nice ending to a rather fulfilling album.
Svalbard have carefully carved out several niches for themselves and fit very snugly in them. Taking major elements of punk, metal, and post-rock, they have created an interesting and highly unique sound. With songs considered long for punk, short for post-rock, and soft for metal, they perfectly fit nowhere. Having a non-man performing vocals (and with as much ferocity as any dude could muster) makes them even more impressive. Their style is fun and surprisingly easy to get into no matter where you lie on the heavy music scale. When I Die, Will I Get Better? is just another a long line of excellent releases, and it is recommended to pick up their whole discography.
- Serena Cherry – Vocals, guitar
- Liam Phelan – Guitar, vocals
- Alex Heffernan – Bass
- Mark Lilley – Drums
- Open Wound
- Click Bait
- Throw Your Heart Away
- Listen To Someone
- Silent Restraint
- What Was She Wearing?
- The Currency Of Beauty