Musicians today often underestimate the raw power of an opening song. Just like how great novels are remembered for their perfect first sentence, or films are mythologised for spectacular introductory scenes, great records benefit from exemplary album openers. These are the tracks that confidently announce an artist’s purpose within mere seconds of hitting play, bursting through to the listener with striking instrumentation, setting the tone and expectation for the tracks to follow. And it just so happens that Svalbard’s “Open Wound” is one such song.
The opening track for the Bristol, UK trio’s third full-length album, cheerfully titled When I Die, Will I Get Better?, is a veritable masterclass in heavy music as evocative mood. Within the first fifty seconds, drummer Mark Lilley’s booming toms and punchy snare hits contrast against lead guitarist/vocalist Serena Cherry’s angelic hum, alongside soaring chord progressions from rhythm guitarist/vocalist Liam Phelan. This blissful maelstrom culminates in a swirling mix of lush atmospherics before being torn to shreds by four minutes of cascading punk back-beats, yearning leads, and climbing synth melodies, punctuated at times by Cherry’s snarling shriek.
It’s the type of honey and vinegar approach to post-rock and metal that’s indebted to the Envy-school of seamless transitions and goosebump-inducing crescendos. As things come to a close, “Open Wound” moves into a triumphant bridge section before the band hits lock-step for a potent finish, as Cherry’s lyrics provide a melancholic meditation on devotion, loss, and the transformative power of pain: “One by one/ Have you collected enough?/ One by one/ Are you done playing rough?/ This hurts too much to be love.”
Svalbard have always been a band that wears their hearts on their collective sleeves. On their phenomenal second album, 2018’s It’s Hard To Have Hope, the group railed ceaselessly against wage theft, misogyny, class privilege, and designer pet breeds. With their newest eight-track effort, that sense of ideological conviction remains stronger than ever, particularly in light of recent details surrounding the demise of former label home, Holy Roar Records, and the band’s swift move to maintain their upcoming release schedule.
At numerous points on When I Die, Will I Get Better?, Cherry goes scorched earth on a whole host of topics, including the divisiveness and double-standards of media representation (“Click Bait”), daily struggles with mental health (“Listen To Someone”), and the patriarchal attitude of victim-blaming in cases of endemic sexual assault on “What Was She Wearing?” (“Showing flesh, showing flesh/ Does not remove dignity/ Showing flesh, showing flesh/ Does not invalidate me”).
Running at a lean 39-minutes, When I Die, Will I Get Better? (which takes its title from an obscure children’s book about death and grief) presents listeners with a long list of album highlights. “Throw Your Heart Away” shines with subtle guitar harmonies from Phelan and Cherry, while “The Currency of Beauty” puts the spotlight on Lilley’s pummelling double kick and syncopated fury. Where these elements truly coalesce, however, is on the breathtaking “Silent Restraint”: an absolutely monstrous track that pushes the envelope for what melodic hardcore and post-rock can achieve in concert, delivered with razor sharp hooks, a relentless tempo, and stellar songwriting.
It’s clear that—in a year as deeply miserable as 2020—if one ever needed a reason for living, it would be to see where Svalbard could possibly go from here.
Stream or purchase When I Die, Will I Get Better? here.