When someone uses the words “It’s a grower”, it is invariably journalistic shorthand for a record that they wish they liked more than they did on first listen. There are lots of reasons for this: the time taken to listen properly to the music may not have been as acute as required; the fact your mates like it more than you do may now be playing, rather unhelpfully, on your mind. You get the drift.
So when I say that Bristol-based Svalbard’s second album It’s Hard to Have Hope (Holy Roar), is a bit of a grower, don’t misunderstand me. It’s not shorthand. It’s not that I didn’t like it on first listen: far from it, I thought it was a ferocious, exciting and compelling record. As my time with the record has lengthened, my view of it has grown in the proper sense of the word. I think this record has currency and resonance, guile and insight. It is unwavering in its vision, forensic in its execution and demanding to be listened to. It is thunderous.
It is a record that, whilst hard-hitting and relentless at times is also personal, evocative and heartfelt. ‘Unpaid Intern’, the justified rage against the exploitation of young people in the workplace sees the band setting out their stall in brutal and remorseless style; it is a breathless, heady stuff.
The melancholic closing part to the astonishing ‘Revenge Porn’ that has an anguished vocalist Serena Cherry crying out “Where is the protection for the women?” before a simply brilliant instrumental passage that is part Cult of Luna, part My Bloody Valentine and all bloody defiance is the best evidence of how far the band has come in honing their blend of hardcore, post-Black metal and post-Rock into a brilliant, fearless aural experience.
The visceral anger that runs through ‘Feminazi’ or the plaintive, heartbroken pleading in ‘Try Not to Die Until You’re Dead’ (a rage against our parlous environmental condition) are two further exceptional examples of how effective music can be when no punches are pulled or no quarter given. This is rage and anger but it is a show, rather than tell, record. Impressively, it is not didactic or patronising, the tone more incredulous and grief stricken at how stupid and wrong we can sometimes be.
Across its forty mins, It’s Hard To Have Hope asks difficult and challenging questions about the personal and political, but this is resolutely not a record about listing grievances and playing the victim. This is a record about standing against what is wrong and standing for what is right through activism and real change. Taking subjects as diverse as sexual harassment, exploitation at work, environmentalism and political hypocrisy, this may not have been the most obvious place to go looking for an album that could bring you joy, defiance and confidence. But, believe me, it does.
It may be hard to have hope but, in Svalbard, that hope is very real indeed. One of the most ferocious, insightful and demanding records you will hear all year.