UK post-hardcore in the 2020s belongs to Svalbard. A lofty claim I confess, but one I nonetheless defend with vigour. Kickstarting the decade with When I Die, Will I Get Better?, an album of such emotive splendour, defiant aggression, and societal relevance that it was widely touted as one of the most important metal releases of the year, the Bristol quartet have since established themselves as a truly vital voice in the UK underground.
Clearly I am not the only one that recognised their calibre, as it was enough to entice Nuclear Blast Records into clinching their signatures on a new deal. From humble beginnings, Svalbard would now rightfully claim their throne amongst perhaps the most storied pantheon in extreme music, alongside the very artists the band would call their heroes. It is now clearer than ever before that the band’s influence comes from wide across the metal spectrum, with increasing variety in recent years. Though rooted firmly in zealous post-hardcore, their sound is equally at home alongside the floating melancholy of Deafheaven, Alcest and Nightwish (co-vocalist/guitarist Serena Cherry’s personal heroes), as it is alongside compatriot hardcore heroes Funeral For A Friend, Broken Teeth, and Landscapes. With The Weight Of The Mask, these flavours shine with an electric vitality, and an emboldened cohesion.
Kicking straight off with “Faking It”, the album takes little time in reminding us where Svalbard‘s powers lie. A candid tableau of a life lived under the burden of depression, the track is as direct in its lyricism as it is in its caustic delivery. ‘I don’t feel joy I just fake it / I don’t feel hope I just fake it / I don’t feel love I just fake it / I don’t feel real nothing is sacred’ echoes out amongst a dénouement of blast beats and soaring guitar lines. The track is a thrilling introduction that picks up right where When I Die… left off, and sets an intense precedent for what is to come. The band have rarely strayed from the realms of introspection and Mask is no different, if anything diving deeper than ever before, eschewing the more overtly political statements of their previous works and delving further into personal waters.
Perhaps predictably then, the album is every bit as heartfelt as its predecessors. “Eternal Spirits” is an anthemic tribute to musical heroes lost before their time, and the album’s first glimpse of Cherry’s ethereal clean vocals, a powerful idiosyncrasy which perfectly complements the expanded instrumentation of the project. There are clear and obvious comparisons to be made with bands like Rolo Tomassi here, another band deftly blending the worlds of post-hardcore and post-rock in recent years. Co-vocalist/guitarist Liam Phelan has enlivened the band’s sonic palette with the introduction of layered violins, which only aggrandize the emotional impact of the tracks in which it is featured. It’s subtle and certainly doesn’t overwhelm, elevating gentle passages and tugging heartstrings that little bit harder. “Lights Out”, “How To Swim Down”, and “Pillar In The Sand” in particular display the band at their fragile best, with protracted sections of dreamlike stasis a welcome reprieve from the colossal onslaught. That is not to say said onslaught overstays its welcome, when firing on all cylinders we hear the Svalbard we fell in love with in the first place, the added experience of years gone by only honing their foundational craft.
Despite Cherry’s comments that this release is less hopeful than their previous work, there is nevertheless a stirring quality to the speed and might of their blackened post-hardcore, one can easily visualise a sea of raised fists in solemn reverence. Where some bands of this ilk skirt around lyrical themes with enigmatic secrecy and commitment to an oblique aesthetic, Svalbard have always struck me as a refreshingly direct band, making music for one, and music for all. Their message speaks to and for a likeminded audience, blessed and cursed with the recognition of modern misery. You will find no arrogance nor delusions of grandeur here either, just the straightforward integrity of one of metal’s most honest bands.
As is their wont, the quartet have once again worked with long-term collaborator and producer Lewis Johns, a rapidly growing name within the UK metal scene. Bearing credits with names such as Loathe, Conjurer, and Ithaca to name but a few, Johns clearly has an ear for excellence and momentum, and Svalbard tick both boxes with aplomb. Despite their growing success, I am certain the Bristolians are still in their ascendancy, and their greatest achievements are yet to come, a humbling thought to bear given their achievements thus far. Naturally the production on this album is sublime, with layers of airtight squalling guitar leads colliding in tandem with incendiary drums throughout the majority of its 45 minute runtime. The periodic refrains into calming waters are wide and overflowing with reverberant grandeur, the album excels in its quietest passages just as it does in its most fierce. Yet for all its dour resonance and expansive blackgaze, this is still emotive hardcore at its heart and there are ferocious riffs aplenty to lock into.
It’s fair to say that expectations were riding high following the emphatic release of When I Die… Released during a breakthrough moment in the rapidly changing political zeitgeist of the UK underground, of which Svalbard are proudly on the front lines, the album flew in the face of many conservative zealots, a call to arms for the growing feminist movement in metal. Ever at odds with the unfortunately ever-present prejudice of the metal world, Svalbard have now long been a key force within the fight against the rampant bigotry found within the subculture so often erroneously praised for its tolerance. Yet with The Weight Of The Mask the focus moves inward. Perhaps their most personal record to date, it is a vivid insight into the arduous experiences of its creators. Fuelled by grief, depression, and anger, it lands with all the ferocity for which they are known, this is a stunningly impactful album that matches and exceeds everything that this band have released thus far.
Svalbard owed it to themselves to release this album, and I for one am eternally grateful to bear witness.