Review Summary: Aiming straight for the top and sticking the landing.
The goal of Svalbard has never been to dress up their words. If at any point they caused offense, caused an eruption of fervent discussion, or prompted anthemic yelling, chances are they achieved their desired effect. Using the power of music as a conduit for their activism, especially with regards to how society views the female sex in general, is the mission statement of the band, fueling their gorgeous melodies and unbridled aggression. And, in any year other than 2018, their feminist-inspired lyricism and resonating tunes would have been highly regarded come the year’s end. Unfortunately for the U.K. collective, their task was an arduous one; earning significant attention demanded the group pierce past their fellow -core countrymen in Rolo Tomassi, Palm Reader, and Black Peaks, simultaneously outperforming underground heroes Zapruder and Noise Trail Immersion. Having evolved noticeably from their debut effort, It’s Hard to Have Hope
was certainly remembered by many a listener, but it wasn’t quite enough to reach an upper echelon. Not unlike the nature of their relatively obscure status and desperate messages—ones that arguably deserve more attention—Svalbard had become the Rocky Balboa of hardcore. Cue one overdramatic training montage but with a Departures record spinning in the background, and there’s an accurate picture of the group: facing personal struggles, discovering new lows, then using those experiences to come back swinging at life even stronger. Returning to the scene in 2020, the augmented energy of the set has been manifested into what currently stands as their masterwork. Taking time in music’s metaphorical gym has brought about a phenomenal realization of direction. Armed to the teeth with enthralling melodies and an emphasized atmosphere, Svalbard are performing at an absolute peak, and they’re aiming for the championship title.
In prior releases, the calling card of the group was a relentless pursuit of swift, blistering assaults, snagging the audience by the throat without ever letting up. This approach has been scaled back ever so delicately, incorporating a heightened emphasis on immersing listeners in a setting appropriate for the narratives of the tunes. Sprawled across the duration of third disc When I Die, Will I Get Better?
—a nod to a somewhat morbid children’s novel—are a series of tracks that surgically dissect Serena Cherry’s mind, ranging from insecurities to observing injustice. Injecting a healthy dose of ethereal shoegaze components comparable to Rolo Tomassi has elevated the newest effort to incredible heights. Flashes of hardcore acts of the past are met with a blackgaze-esque command over harmonies not unlike møl. Letting songs breathe has allowed them to open up in a thrilling way never before touched upon by Svalbard to this point. The enticing melodic riffs that were always there
are provided a glowing polish job courtesy of the radiant production, permitting them to shine extraordinarily bright to punctuate the emotional core of the record. Focusing on diverse structuring has similarly cleared considerable room for the percussion performance to not only improve, but frequently steal the spotlight with its frightening intensity, precision, and excellent fills. The dual vocal approach is stronger than ever, the female and male components naturally playing off of each other’s energy. Serena’s soothing clean singing, now employed liberally on various cuts, is a perfect companion to the quieter sections of the album. While this paints the portrait of an aspiring boxer learning to temper their style, such is not exactly the case; When I Die…
retains that raw, passionate methodology of throwing out an onslaught of sonic punches. Practicing patience rather than sprinting too far ahead is where Svalbard ultimately realize amazing success.
Before devoting themselves to wistful shoegaze soundscapes, the melodic guitars of Svalbard were already potent weapons in the band’s arsenal, their elegant tonality illuminating the shadowy depths often described through the lyrics. Placed in a novel context, the string compositions manage to accomplish crushing heaviness alongside beautiful instances of restraint. Lead single “Listen to Someone” embodies this amalgamation faithfully. Distant strumming and a faint tremolo gradually announce the song’s entrance, instantly constructing a somber ambiance about the track and letting it settle upon the audience. Piece by piece, the number comes alive as Serena’s soft singing voice eases into the proceedings buoyed by the increased presence of the guitars and bass. With little warning, that which was previously reserved is now propelled forward, a sea of melodic tones flooding the landscape as the drumming muscles into the fray, desperate screams conquering the mix. Yet, as soon as this motif is established, Svalbard deconstruct the arrangement, forging a striking ebb and flow: male harsh vocals spearheaded by crunching guitars set against serene female cleans, their support stripped down to cymbal tapping and delicate thrumming. Upon regaining its stride, the entry pulses at the whim of its dominant melody as it rises in the background with the despondent refrain repeated underneath. This ultimately sets the foundation for a cathartic conclusion that culminates both the lyrical message and the instrumental theming. In one memorable exclamation of the song title, belted out as if a universal truth, the track attains a final apex as the as the guitar passages cascade down. The personal touch offered by the honest prose ensures that the stunning musicianship is cemented as achingly relatable.
Songwriting strengths exhibited in the aforementioned construction persist through the 38-minute opus. The omnipresent shoegaze influence weaves its way into almost every creation lining up the disc. A dreamy aesthetic introduces the album opener “Open Wound” as female choir vocals arch overhead, their ethereal quality wiped aside by a bombastic tremolo and an energetic percussion performance. Much like how “Listen to Someone” artfully balanced restraint and straightforward assaults, the track maneuvers itself through alternating passages commanded by serene clean vocals, the timbre of the guitars reigning supreme before transforming into attack formation. A more straightforward hardcore romp comes in the form of “Throw Your Heart Away,” the tune wasting little time as it is immediately forced into an fasttempo assault. As it approaches its midway point, a particularly striking harmony is struck as the lead and rhythm guitars merge together before segueing into a brief respite from the action. Once more, the group is capable of flexing their exceptional ability to gradually reassemble themselves before launching forth into an uplifting climax. Following in a similar vein is the rocking feel brought forth by the robust riff of “Silent Restraint.” Throughout the iterations of the chorus, which feature a rare appearance of male clean vocals, the percussion kit showcases a fantastic dynamic range, supplying tantalizing fills to fuel the energy of the song. When the band prepares to urgently push forward, the drumming quickly switches roles, propelling the creation onward at top speed. The greatest departure witnessed on the LP emerges on the ending number, “Pearlescent,” which disposes of the majority of harsh aspects, instead dedicating concentration to uplifting keys and sparkling riffs. It is an appropriately atmospheric, cleverly controlled closer to accurately conclude Svalbard’s latest output.
These ventures would be incomplete were it not for that electric lyricism first evidenced by “Listen to Someone.” In every line penned for the album is the beating heart of Svalbard as an act: their advocation for pressing issues, desire to identify inequalities, and their willingness to present relatable dilemmas in an honest manner. There’s something endearing about a band that vigorously refuses to compromise their style of presentation, opting to never sacrifice words if it means obfuscating their intent. The very same theme is evident in the concise, wholly developed record on display, never cutting corners on established ideas. For the previously listed single, the collective urges for individuals to respect mental health problems like depression—a difficult state that can often be dismissed or trivialized. There is seemingly nothing ostensibly artistic about writing so genuinely that interpretation becomes unquestionable.
“Don't tell me it's 'okay to not be okay'
Then wince at everything I say
Don't act like a confidant
If you’re just going to get impatient
And make patronizing suggestions
It's not my life that's the problem”
Whatever Svalbard wish their audience to understand is laid perfectly bare. The same can be said for the upfront disposition of “Click Bait” or “What Was She Wearing?’ wherein the topic needs no dissection; the abuse of women is placed squarely in front of the listener. Whether it is the attractive guitar lines or the gorgeous restraint, Svalbard guarantees that these words do not go unheard. Grounded deeply into the framework of the emotional musicianship on display, the lyrics are just as vital, and they perhaps reflect the personality of the band the most. The end result of When I Die…
is a record that is incredibly impactful in its content, inspiring in its sweeping melodies, and categorically authentic around every turn. With passion coursing through every second, there’s no doubt that Svalbard’s latest is not only a personal best, but one that will triumph over competition come the year’s end.