Deerest Skulls: Svalbard and Lord Almighty

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I’m coo-coo for craniums!

Ah, skulls—eternal stalwarts of metal artwork. As the wonderful Big Dumb Skulls blog had proven years ago (and might one day set out to prove again), there’s nary a symbol more prevalent in the subculture. Whether they denote death, decay, a connection to the occult, or just plain badassery, I love me some skulls, and so I was delighted to find two remarkable specimen from the animal kingdom this year. Luckily, I didn’t even have to strain too much to find further parallels between Svalbard‘s When I Die, Will I Get Better? and Lord Almighty‘s Wither, so maybe I can get away with talking about both in one go, focusing on the music instead of the visual art from here on out.

Both bands debuted at roughly the same time (2012 and 2013, respectively), and while I haven’t heard past efforts from either, both seem to have decided that playing only one genre is simply not enough. Both contain elements of black metal to at least some extent, but although Svalbard does have the occasional blast beat and urgent tremolo riffing, I’d locate them more in the wide field of post-hardcore. This is very aptly mixed with copious elements of shoegaze, but eschews that genre’s wall-of-sound approach in which elements can get muddied and blurred. Instead, the production mostly retains a clarity that makes it that much more emotionally impactful. Even in “Listen to Someone,” where the shoegaze is perhaps at its most dreamy, the next burst of aggression is always right around the corner, tethering the song to the ground so it doesn’t float off. Throughout the record, aggression and sadness go hand in hand, tightly interwoven in a way we’re all familiar with since at least Sunbather, but executed in a much more immediate fashion thanks to shorter songs that get to the point faster.

What gets me most about the Svalbard record, for which lyrics can be found, is the song “Silent Restraint,” a stark depiction of depression and an attempt to face the fact that it will not simply go away but instead needs to be lived with, and that that will have an irreversible impact on how you live. However, songs about depression and love (“Throw Your Heart Away”) are the exception here, perhaps surprisingly for a record drawing so heavily on shoegaze tropes (or not surprising at all if you’re familiar with this band). The aforementioned “Listen to Someone” not only tackles depression but the way it’s discussed, showing the frustration of having to explain the condition to the sort of person who goes, “yeah but have you tried being happy though?”

Overwhelmingly, the lyrics are not content to look inwards and dwell on feeling like shit, but instead turn their gaze outwards and call out circumstances that contribute to this feeling: domestic abuse, the way media outlets treat women in metal, victim shaming in cases of rape, and the sexism that is deeply ingrained in society. Elevating personal issues away from the individual level and placing them in a wider societal context was something I was hitherto unfamiliar with, and I’d like to see more of it.

Lord Almighty likewise keeps their compositions on the short side, but generally put a lot more emphasis on black metal, as the opener quickly establishes (after the likely unintentional audio fuckup right at the beginning, which bothers me to no end). The song also highlights a different approach to the mixing of genres as it goes from black metal to thrash to atmospheric black metal and back to black metal. Rather than intertwining the different elements, Lord Almighty tends to compartmentalize, so it feels more like they’re juxtaposing genres rather than blending them. I can’t deny that it works, however; there are only a few transitions between styles that left me scratching my head, and they got less odd after repeated spins. It’s also not something that’s consistent throughout the whole album.

There are plenty of songs, especially in the latter half, that feel more homogenous, and to the band’s credit, it can be hard to put a definitive label on them. While the title track is largely a straightforward atmospheric black metal affair, I still can’t decide whether the fantastically catchy “Adrift,” for example, is sludge or a midtempo thrash stomper. Matters are complicated further when they start straight up rocking out in songs like “Rise” or “Despite.” All in all, the music fits the progressive black metal tag that the band bear on their Metal Archives page. The individual black metal parts may be less fanciful than what you’d associate with that genre, but looking at the bigger picture, there’s enough outside-the-box thinking to merit the description.

Another element that both albums share is an atmosphere of sadness. I’ve already mentioned the consistent role it plays in Svalbard’s music, but it also rears its head again and again throughout Wither. Several tracks have intros that ooze a sense of melancholy, which will often be picked up again towards the song’s end. The aforementioned title track boasts mournful riffing aplenty, and almost every song will sooner or later come to a part that feels steeped in tragedy. Lyrics are not readily available, but several pointers (chief amongst them the cover art) indicate that ecological factors play a role. Even though the air of despair is hardly ever played consistently enough to dominate how a song feels overall, it adds a welcome facet to the otherwise mostly aggressive or even swaggering moods on display throughout the record. I do wish, however, that there were more moments like the one from about 2:30 onwards in the opening track, which I find to be the most hard-hitting of the sad moments. There’s something in that melody that gets me every time.

Any closing words? Well, despite the common ground I’ve tried to map here, it’d be silly to pretend these two records aren’t very different beasts with very different strengths (and very few weaknesses). Both make for good soundtracks for the fall season though, so give each one a shot.

Svalbard’s When I Die, Will I Get Better? came out on Septmeber 25th.

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Lord Almighty’s Wither came out on October 16th.

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