Svalbard – ‘When I Die, Will I Get Better?’

By Liam Knowles

Bristol-based post-crust quartet Svalbard have been an active part of the UK’s underground music scene since 2012, and have been steadily building up their reputation as one of our most exciting exports ever since. 2018’s stellar album ‘It’s Hard To Have Hope’ was critically lauded, most notably for its no-frills lyrical approach, dealing with difficult themes like societal misogyny, animal cruelty and the failures of capitalism without ever hiding the message and intent of the songs behind imagery and metaphors that could be misinterpreted by the listener. Intentionally or not, guitarist and vocalist/lyricist Serena Cherry has become a figurehead for a much needed wave of female representation in heavy music, and has remained steadfast in her mission to encourage change and discard traditions and structures that don’t give a fair share of the available space to all different kinds of voices.

The title of the new album, ‘When I Die, Will I Get Better?’, sets the tone perfectly for this record. It’s a question asked by someone who is absolutely exhausted after being trapped in shit situation after shit situation, whether it’s the abusive relationship depicted in ‘Open Wound’, the mental health battle heart-wrenchingly illustrated in ‘Listen To Someone’, or the toxic music media landscape laid out in ‘Click Bait’. Musically, this album is much more melodic and ethereal than its predecessor, but lyrically it’s just as venomous. The double-whammy of ‘What Was She Wearing?’ and ‘The Currency Of Beauty’ in particular is an extremely impactful account of what it feels like to be a woman in a society that thinks you’re something to be seen but not heard. If you’re part of this music scene and these lyrics don’t make you realise that change is needed, well, you might be part of the problem.

The lyrical content is an extremely important aspect of what makes this band so special, but no matter how good your lyrics are, you need to be able to back them up with solid songs. This isn’t an issue for Svalbard, who have expertly crafted eight tracks of blackened crust-punk, iced with a layer of shimmering post-rock euphoria. The battling vocals of Serena Cherry and co-guitarist Liam Phelan are as complimentary as ever, with the latter’s Snapcase-esque yelp contrasting perfectly with the former’s guttural metal growls. We saw a little clean singing from Serena on the last album, but it takes much more of a front seat on this record, and when she applies it to the album’s louder moments Svalbard can easily hold their own against melodic blackgaze heavyweights like Alcest or Astronoid. There’s also a deeply sung chorus from Liam on ‘Silent Restraint’ that’s reminiscent of Baroness, a feature that may take a lot of existing Svalbard fans by surprise but one that works incredibly well. This vocal interplay is draped over a foundation of razor sharp-riffs and glistening melodies that make the songs feel incredibly triumphant and uplifting, despite the often bleak subject matter. Particular praise needs to be given to drummer Mark Lilley, who has done great work on Svalbard’s older material, but good lord has he stepped it up on this record. In particular, the double-kick sections on closer ‘Pearlescent’ make an already powerful moment feel utterly transcendent.

In what has proven to be quite a rubbish year for a variety of reasons, ‘When I Die, Will I Get Better?’ is the boost a lot of us probably needed. It’s a gloriously stirring album, and whilst it does touch on some difficult topics, listening to it feels like a cleansing experience. If you’re looking for something to pull at your heartstrings whilst also pulling you out of an emotional pit, then look no further.

LIAM KNOWLES

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