There is a specter haunting punk music, the specter of the new generation of punk. This generation of musicians grew up with the idea of punk, the inherently revolutionary and anti-establishment power of it, but without the calcification of the stagnation which the 90’s and the 00’s brought to the genre. These musicians make music that can be categorized with many labels, from post-punk, through hardcore, and even all the way into post-hardcore (whatever that means). But what unites them is that they’re pissed off and they’re not willing to take aim at the (often all too distant) targets that the punk elite (yes, that’s a thing) would like them to take aim at. Namely, they’ve correctly identified that punk and hardcore are incredibly male-dominated genres and they’re fucking tired of it.
One such band is Svalbard. These guys have been making a sort of melodic hardcore, tinged with plenty of elements from shoegaze, post-rock, and other genres you wouldn’t expect to see mentioned here since 2012. The last few years, and specifically their previous release, It’s Hard to Have Hope, have brought them to the attention of music journalists and, one should hope, to the attention of more listeners. And with good reason: Svalbard’s energy is wholly of that new generation, of punk that is being revitalized with a middle finger raised high and loud against patriarchy, oppression, and abuse. In that regard, they belong alongside names like Ithaca and Lower Slaughter (reminder to listen to the criminally underrated Lower Slaughter).
When I Die, Will I Get Better? places Svalbard firmly at the forefront of this movement, interestingly located in the UK (which is, of course, one of the original hotbeds in which punk was formed). From the very first note, it’s apparent that Svalbard have performed an interesting double movement. One movement is an expansion; something about the album, from the very first melodic guitar line echoing in the background of “Open Wound”, feels even more expansive and far-flung in its melody. The second movement, paradoxically, is one of contraction. Everything on the album seems to hit even deeper, to be more concentrated and, thus, effective. Achieving both of these things involves a tenuous dance between tone, production, composition, and execution and Svalbard have managed to navigate this dance with incredible expertise.
Take “Throw Your Heart Away”, the third track on the album, as a kind of microcosm for this. It starts off with this big guitar and vocal line, channeling much of that melodic emphasis we alluded to above. The guitars are colorful and loud, channeling an almost post-rock sort of crescendo. But then the drums arrive and they are furiously compact, churning out roll after roll before the high-octane, main drum line of the track arrives. It only gets more compact from there, alluding to that punk barrage that is so often mistaken for simplicity. But the guitars keep playing these super colorful and “smeared” sounds, resorting to tremolo picking to keep up with the drums. Honestly, the main riff on this track wouldn’t feel out of place on a Mono album.
When you bring these two different sounds together, the intensity and compactness of the drums (and, naturally, their compatriot the bass) with the far-flung chromaticism of the guitars, you get a sound that’s really special. But you’re missing one last thing. You’re missing a conduit for the tension between these two styles. Enter Serena Cherry, the band’s vocalist. Whether she’s railing against the patriarchy or channeling personal loss and tragedy, she does so with an explosive, vociferous intensity that is honestly impossible to resist. The drums should already have gotten you jumping and moving. The guitars should already have left you raw and attentive. But in case they haven’t, for some weird reason, Cherry’s raw, powerful singing should do the trick of flaying you right open.
All of this means that Svalbard can do pretty much whatever they want with their basic blend of genres and get away with it. When I Die, Will I Get Better? has political fury in the form of “Click Bait” and “What Was She Wearing?” It has songs of drama and melancholy in the form of “Listen To Someone” and “Pearlescent”. It has a bit of everything and yet, somehow, it manages to stay punk as fuck. So the next time you’re listening to a bunch of has-been men argue about how’s punk or try to tell you that being punk is compatible with being a conservative, throw this album for a spin and wash all that nonsense from your head. The future of punk is young, and feminist, and pissed off and so incredibly serrated with empathy that you’ll know when it’s one because it will yank your heart out.
Svalbard’s When I Die, Will I Get Better? was released on September 25th. You can grab it via the Bandcamp link above.