The Weight of the Mask

Everything about the UK’s Svalbard can be characterized, in one way or another, as high-freaking-impact. Even when the band is taking a brief respite from their usual full-speed-ahead musical approach – a high-octane mix of Post-Hardcore, Metalcore, Black Metal and D-Beat that rarely (if ever) pulls any punches – they’re still likely coming at you face-first with all-too-real issues facing very real people all over the world. Issues concerning everything from sexual assault, abuse and discrimination, struggles with mental and emotional health, the robbery of basic human rights and a society built towards empowering the elite and keeping the lower class down, the kind of stuff that makes the fantasized horrors of the most bloodthirsty Death Metal elite seem almost childish or inconsequential by comparison. Svalbard have proven time and time again an outright refusal to let their listeners get comfortable, making it all the more astounding that they’ve managed to build a big enough following to attract the likes of Nuclear Blast Records.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this but, that’s a pretty big fucking deal! And it does come with some questions – perhaps the biggest of which being, how will a band as forward and outspoken as Svalbard take to a bigger label affiliation? Will the band who has been fighting ferociously in the corner of the marginalized and abused, themselves fall victim to their new overlords? Will they succumb to the pressures laid upon them by their new, more powerful bosses?

The answer to both, as it should have been expected, is no. Abso-fucking-lutely not.

* I should be responsible here and say, I don’t personally know of any specific or rumored instances of Nuclear Blast Records treating any of their associates unfairly, I’m mostly just deploying my flair for the dramatic to build conflict or tension to engage the audience (writing 101, baby!), however recent events involving the split between Nuclear Blast’s now parent company (French conglomerate Believe Digital) and original founder Markus Staiger (who went on to form the tongue-and-cheekly named Atomic Fire Records, bringing many NB longtime stalwarts along with him) has certainly raised some eyebrows. From my understanding, the split basically seems to come down to a general difference of opinion about how their music labels should be run – Nuclear Blast believes digital, perhaps unsurprisingly, leaning into a more digitally-focused distribution strategy, and Atomic Fire Records essentially sticking to its brick-and-mortar roots, continuing to rely more heavily on physical distribution of CDs, Vinyl and Cassette. Conclusions can be drawn as to what that ultimately means as far as the culture of each enterprise is concerned, but I claim zero expertise on the subject. A very thorough article outlining the whole ordeal can be found here if you’re interested (fair warning – the article is pretty one-sided, so take everything with a grain of salt and form your own conclusions).

While I may not have been entirely genuine in my dramatic buildup, it does make for somewhat of a… curious pairing. But for anyone out there concerned that Nuclear Blast has gone the way of cold, calculating money-maker uninterested in artistic integrity, I cannot find any signs of it here on The Weight of the MaskSvalbard is still very much Svalbard, albeit with some slight tweaks and noticeable areas of growth that make a big difference, the first being a much more singular-focus in subject matter. Where their back catalogue ran the gamut of tough topics, The Weight of the Mask is almost completely based in mental health – following the duality of facing day to day life with a smile, while internally struggling with depression. Opener “Faking It” couldn’t possibly fit the bill any better, laying bare the band’s intentions with this album like an open, untreated wound. A straightforward, no frills duel vocal barrage from the incomparable Serena Cherry and Liam Phelan continue to lead the attack, packing the same emotional haymakers you’ve come to expect from this pair – anger, pain, uncertainty, hope (how ever distant it may be), it’s all there, belted out with throat-tearing intensity. And Cherry’s unmistakable tremolo-picked leads are still giving the band its unmatched edge and identity, providing as much an emotional guide as the vocals, if not more.

With that said, its the rhythm guitars that begin to really make in impact here, boasting some of the strongest straight-up riffs the band have produced to date. The vicious pre-chorus attack on “Faking It” is an absolute brute, along with the driving force of riffs in “Lights Out,” “Be My Tomb” and the tail end of “November” that elevate the songs in ways that make the secondary guitars seem like less of an afterthought as they sometimes felt on prior records. Don’t get me wrong, Serena Cherry’s melodies deserve all the attention they get, but I feel the balanced attack just makes both parties stronger, creating a more vibrant contrast that lands an even greater impact.

Speaking of balance, the more narrowed focus on the album’s theme has paid off in a big way, too. Not that prior albums ever felt disjointed, but The Weight of the Mask has a real sense of fluidity to it, as if Svalbard really wanted to tell a full story with this album, exploring the different facets and stages of grief, depression and coping. The passionate outburst of “Faking It” is followed with the recalcitrance of “Defiance,’ an anthem if there ever was one for standing up to your own inner demons and fighting, even if it’s a losing battle. But like the manic ebbs and flows that come with mental stress, “November” comes and rips the wind right out of the listener’s sails, breaking everything down into a quiet, near-whispered interlude where Serena Cherry absolutely nails the numb, defeated feeling of daily burden with her vocal delivery. It all builds to another huge, blasted outburst where the band really puts their blackened edge at the forefront, expressing the bitterness of loss that ultimately led the initial despondence. It’s a brilliant progression that really does speak to the band’s growth as songwriters, which remains self-evident through the remainder of the album’s emotional roller coaster. Their willingness to explore the lows a bit further on “How to Swim Down” and “Pillar in the Sand” make the cathartic eruptions of “Be My Tomb” and “To Wilt Beneath the Weight” feel all the more cleansing.

At the album’s close, it’s clear that the “Serena Cherry sound” is still very much intact and further celebrated on The Weight of the Mask, continuing to cement her place as one of extreme music’s most distinctive and, frankly, important personalities. I don’t mean that to take away from the performances of the rest of the band which are, once again, top notch – but with every Svalbard release comes, it seems, another opportunity to see what this immensely talented young woman is capable of. I suppose that’s why this marriage between the band and their new label is of such interest to me, because it’s sure gonna be a shame if any entity does try to stifle Serena Cherry’s platform. For now, what I can say is that if Nuclear Blast’s main focus is just making money? It does not seem to be coming at the expense of letting their bands do their thing, their way. So rejoice, friends, because Svalbard still fucking rule, and The Weight of the Mask is still the powerful, emotional gut punch we’ve come to crave.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Steve K
October 23rd, 2023


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