I aspire to never underestimate what a band can do. But I think I slipped up with this one. After only hearing “Unpaid Intern” I was interested in what Svalbard was doing, but wasn’t really clamoring to hear more. I like melodic hardcore and am absolutely loving what Holy Roar Records is doing this year, so I had some mild vested interest in how the entire record would sound. Then I heard “Revenge Porn” and my ears perked up more. This was getting into some really interesting territory for me. So I threw my hat in the ring to review this record once we received our promo copy. It’s Hard To Have Hope will be out on May 25th, and is eight tracks of razor-sharp social commentary.
Stylistically, this record stretches itself in several directions. The intensity of the vocals, the clarity of the message, and the thunderous grooves are all earmarks of great hardcore. But then there are these moments that lean into post-rock where the song widens and the tempo drops and really lets the song sink deeper. The first real compositional standout is “Revenge Porn”, which is quickly climbing in my list of my favorite songs of the year. Beginning with a subtle atmosphere and whispered vocals which are pointing out society’s assumptions, the affirming reply comes crashing in with a full-on attack. This not only serves the dynamics of the composition but also really drives home the point and the message of the song. There are also some black metal leanings to be found, but transitioning to a moderate groove. All this happens in the first two minutes of this six-minute, sprawling, meaty song.
Following this track is the grand atmospheric ripper that is “Feminazi”. If you were unclear on just how passionate Svalbard are about their social ideals, then this song should clear that up for you. The intensity of this track never lets up and the fiery performance in every aspect of the band is palpable. It’s more of a straightforward composition like “Unpaid Intern” and in terms of pacing, it pushes the record forward while still being powerful. This isn’t a weak song by any standard, but what follows is next-level songwriting.
“Pro-Life” is just under five minutes, but the movements of this song are simply masterful. Beginning almost exactly like “Revenge Porn”, the subtlety lasts a little longer here, allowing the thought to complete before the blast beats and scorching vocals come sweeping in. After quick pivots into an almost black metal drumming segment (the drumming on this record is superb throughout, by the way), we are lulled back into another argument with conflicting social ideas and even more timing changes. The last segment of the song doubles down on groove, and transitions to one of the best callout lines that you’ll hear on a record this year: ‘Is it pro-life, to have no rights?’
Protest songs and albums can be fickle lines to walk. Get too specific and you risk alienating audiences. Be too vague and your point can be missed entirely. It’s Hard To Have Hope puts itself in the position to balance this very well. Of course, this is up to the listener if the commentary is too overt to be timeless or enjoyable for them. From my perspective, Svalbard manages to be pointed, direct, and specific enough so no one will miss the message of their music. They also made a record that is so sonically pleasant that you can’t walk away unimpressed. At its heart, hardcore has always been a place to talk about issues. With this legacy behind it, this record is poised to be the landmark of socially aware (AKA woke) hardcore records of the year, maybe the decade.
As the album comes to a close, things get softer and desperation gives way to reflection. This ties into the title of the record: hope is hard to have but it’s not absent. With songs like “How Do We Stop It” the questioning begins and becomes a cry for a collective resolution. The penultimate track “Try Not To Die Until You’re Dead” is a somber and quieter affair that looks to inspire hope and includes the line that titles this record. The final track “Lorek” is an instrumental bookend that’s uplifting and borders on triumphant. It’s a lovely post-rock tune; Svalbard could make an entire record like it and I’d scoop it up in a heartbeat.
There’s a power to this album that’s undeniable. The lush soundscapes that just blossom within many of the songs add an element of poetry to the message. These aren’t angry kids with guitars. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but this is more. Svalbard are articulate artists who know how to write stellar songs, arrange them in compelling ways, and never compromise. To be able to balance so much is impressive, and to do it so well is simply genius. I like having my expectations rocked. I never imagined It’s Hard To Have Hope to be an album of the year contender, but I gladly stand corrected.
Notable Tracks: “Pro-Life”; “Revenge Porn”; “Try Not To Die Until You’re Dead”
FFO: Converge, Rolo Tomassi, Palm Reader