Review 1906 : Svalbard – The Weight Of The Mask – English

Svalbard never stops moving forward.

Formed in 2011 in England, the band incarnated by Serena Cherry (guitar/vocals), Liam Phelan (guitar/vocals/violin), Mark Lilley (drums) and Matt Francis (bass) sign to Nuclear Blast for the release of The Weight of the Mask, their fourth album.

Faking It opens the album with haunting tones, which eventually transform into a lively catchy rhythm where screams regularly appear, complemented by piercing leads. The more ethereal elements create an interesting contrast with the obvious rage, which is echoed in Eternal Spirit and its mad dance through melodies tinged with dissonant Old School influences. A clean vocal passage soothes the track, but visceral screams take over again before the melancholic Defiance comes into play and sweeps us away in its soaring veil, letting the different vocal parts alternate to create an enchanting diversity. The first hint of tranquility comes with November and its gentle introduction, which gradually intensifies before literally bursting into flames, welcoming blast, saturation and screams, before giving way to Lights Out, which continues to fuel the fury with a fast jerky rhythm. The riffs suddenly calm down to become almost ethereal, before embracing violence once more, until How To Swim Down also adds a calmer touch with a mystical violin-accompanied opening. Even when saturation becomes part of the sound, it remains gentle, in contrast to Be My Tomb, which is immediately more raw and energetic, while retaining a melodic element that overhangs the more hostile basis. Pillar In The Sand also begins in total serenity, but it is eventually disturbed by drums, which build in power before letting a wave of aggression take possession of the riffs that lead us to To Wilt Beneath The Weight, the last composition, and its strong contrast between the two universes that animates the musicians by placing ghostly harmonics to shade the heavy tones.

Svalbard‘s contrasted universe is as much driven by visceral sonorities as by the most soothing elements, giving The Weight Of The Mask a versatile personality which is always extremely coherent and heady. The band is definitely rising.


Version Française ?

Few questions to Serena Cherry, singer and guitarist of the English Post-Black Metal band Svalbard.

Hello and first of all, thank you very much for your time! Could you please introduce yourself and the band Svalbard without using the usual Metal labels?
Serena Cherry (guitar/vocals): I’m Serena Cherry, I play lead guitar and I do vocals in the band Svalbard. We have a very unique sound, we don’t conform to one gender and we’re all about creating music which is emotionally heavy as well as musically heavy. I think our sound is difficult to describe, we have many influences, lots of different styles of music. But the main thing… I’d say the most important thing in Svalbard is the feeling. And we’re always searching for that kind of bittersweet emotion that pours from our heart straight in our music.

How do you personally link the name Svalbard, which is a place in Iceland, to the band’s music identity?
Serena: I feel like the sort of frosty cold which is also a barren, unusual landscape of Svalbard, not inhabited by many people at all represents our kind of cold, river-drenched guitars, also the kind of the beauty of it, like a raw beauty. A place like Svalbard is one of the best spiritual places in the world, but it’s not that kind of accessible. In the same way, it’s also maybe a touristic destination, so I think it really encapsulates our sound, it got the beauty but also a raw aspect.

The band’s fourth full-length, The Weight of the Mask, is nearly out, how do you feel about it?
Serena: I’m super excited to release this album! This is the album that taken us the longest to make, so I think we’ve been sore on it for a really long time, and this is the hardest we ever worked on, we’re so sore on this album, which also marks our first on Nuclear Blast records, because looked up to that record label so much, we really wanted to created the best thing possible. So our approach was very meticulous, we had to get really good at receiving critics from each other about if they like my idea, or a part or whatever… It was quite a long writing process. But I’m so excited to have it released!

Do you already have some feedback?
Serena: We’ve had some. When I talk about critics and feedback it’s into the band members, we were writing together, I come up with a riffs, and Liam (Liam Phelan, rhythm guitarist, violinist and co-singer, ed.) like it or not, or he comes up, or it’s him and I… we really working with each other, in that mind of questioning everything we did, and everything we worked. Does this need to be refined? Does this need to be there? Maybe a lyric or anything? We have received a little bit of feedback as well, and it’s all very positive as well. 

How would you sum The Weight of the Mask’s identity up in only three words?
Serena: That’s a hard question… I’d use the word contrast. Heartbreaking. And aggressive. I say the word contrast because the album has a lot of contrast, and it also have some of the heaviest songs we’ve ever written, and some of the softest songs we’ve ever written.

How did the composition process happen for The Weight of the Mask?
Serena: How we work together is like the old kind of rule together, we don’t work long-distance. Even now, we’re all living in different cities now, we still all meet together in the same room, we like to do it Old School and jam like this. So usually, we turn up to the studio only if we have a riff we want to play together. On building songs, Liam comes up with his riffs and I add my leads on the top of it. Then we build the music and Mark (Mark Lilley, ed.) would add his drums, Matt (Matt Francis, ed.) adds his bass and then we argue about each idea for like five hours (laughs). And then, when all the music is ready, which took about two years, then I did the lyrics at the end, because I like to match the lyrics to the atmosphere of the song, so I prefer to write the lyrics when all the music is ready.

As you have a “new” band member since 2021 (Matt Francis, bass), how was it to create music with a new person?
Serena: It’s funny to hear you describing him as a new person, because he joined so well and so quickly in the band! It feels like he was in the band for a lot longer! A few weeks in, he didn’t feel like a “new guy”, it was very comfortable, which is great. And if anything is just been a super positive change because having a fresh bass player in with a new perspective, and new ideas, stuff he wants to contribute is… it just keeps things fresh, which is really nice to have a different perspective to the songs, so it worked really well! He was easy, and he understood what Svalbard was all about right from when he joined.

What about the artwork, did you have some guidelines and how did they march with the music you created?
Serena: You know, that’s amazing because I found the artist to ask (Hestor Aspland, ed.), and she made a tshirt design for us which was fantastic. And then I asked her to create the artwork, I gave very very simple guidelines such as the title of the album and the emotions behind, what we wanted to convey, and she created the album artwork straight away. She did that in one go, which is absolutely amazing! She really understood what we tried to convey with the album and the lyrical things, so it was absolutely amazing working with her and she’s got a lot of symbolism in… like the pale flowers in the roots and anything carrying the person to symbolize you can feel so very tied by depression. And then the mask is a mask of a dead animal represents that loss of innocence and hope, on that disconnection from nature, so there’s a lot of meaning behind her artwork, and she did a fantastic job.

Where do you find inspiration to create your music?
Serena: (laughs) The things inspiring me musically are mostly video games soundtracks. That’s my biggest musical influence, and when I pick up a guitar, nine out of ten times I write a guitar lead and I’m like “oh no, that’s from Final Fantasy” (laughs). I’m always looking for that kind of emotive quality that really takes you out on a journey and that’s the things I feel you get the most in like Kingdom Hearts soundtracks, the Final Fantasy soundtracks, Skyrim or World of Warcraft soundtracks! It’s so evocative to me, it’s almost like a different language that speaks personally to my heart alone. And when I’m playing guitar, I’m searching for that same feeling, and searching for that same almost kind of bittersweet-like… It’s so uplifting at the same time as melancholy emotion, that’s where most of my musical inspiration come from, and it’s interesting because it’s not obvious. You wouldn’t listen to Svalbard and think “she’s influenced by Skyrim” (laughs). But that’s where it comes from for me.

Svalbard’s music is made of an important contrast between pure quietness and visceral violence. How do you achieve to create such balance between all your influences on the songs?
Serena: It’s not easy to create that balance, that is the thing it takes the most time. First to figure out that, we work on the mass, we don’t want to overload a song with brutal heaviness, but we don’t the clean sections or the most atmospheric sections to feel forced and having so much contrast in a song, but also having a dynamic that sounds natural is kind of delicate process which requires a lot of thinking or questioning while creating a song. It is a really long time to create a song, and striking that balance, that contrast, is one of the hardest things and takes the most time, but we go feel for it and… it sounds very cheesy but when you know, you know with a song. It just feels right, and kinda falls into place.

How do you decide to use screams or clean vocals?
Serena: A lot of the time, it will be based on the specific lyrics and the feeling of that lyrics. So for example on the song How To Swim Down, there are no screamed vocals, and that is because there’s no aggression on that song, that’s a love song. And I wanted to encapsulate that kind of feeling of like… softly adorned singing and delivering these words to someone. You can always tell when you listen to the lyrics if it’s a screamer or a singer. And I try to pick the more beautiful love-felt lyrics to the words when I sing, and when the lyrics are really angry, aggressive, frustrated and desperate, that’s the lyrics that become screamed.

Maybe you have a favorite song on this album? Or maybe the hardest one to achieve for the album?
Serena: My favorite song on this album is How To Swim Down, it’s also my favorite song we’ve ever written, which is interesting because that’s probably the most different song we’ve ever written (laughs), but I like that! I like being unpredictable and… I don’t want people to see us like… Svalbard has a new song out and immediately people are able to guess how that’s gonna sound. It’s my favorite song because I love violence, I really like my reverb on leads it’s so atmospheric and it came out while recording, that’s my favorite vocal performance that I’ve done and lyrically the song really means a lot to me. It’s also a past tribute to all the bands I like as well, like Alcest, Anathema, Riverside… It’s our love ballad (laughs)

Do you think you are still improving yourself as a musician and songwriter?
Serena: Yes. I actually had feedback in the studio, Lewis Johns, the producer, told me how much my vocals had improved since the previous album, and that’s because I worked really really hard on them. I started to going running and swimming to develop my lung capacity, and to develop my control, and then that really came out in the studio, as I was able to convey much more emotions in the screams, and being able to now blow my voice out, it really get the power of the scream onto the record, so that was definitely what he noticed. I always push myself with my guitar playing, but at the same time, I don’t wanna play some songs complicated just for the sake or songs hard to play, I think everything should be serving the sound and leads doesn’t need to have lots of notes or be played really fast to work with a song. For me personally, it’s definitely about my vocals that I really noticed an improvement, and I’ve worked a lot for this album.

I saw the band twice on stage, Motocultor 2022 and Hellfest 2023, how do you feel when you’re on stage?
Serena: Performing on stage is my favorite feeling in the world! It is the thing I live for. When I’m on stage, it’s the one time I’m not crippled with social anxiety, it’s the one time that I can get out of depression overbearing on me, it makes me feel free, I feel so empowered, I love standing there with my three bandmates, some of my closest friends, and sharing my experience with them is always magical. To look across and see your bandmates lost in the moment too, just playing at full volume, at maximum power, it’s the most magical thing in the world to me. It is the thing I live for.

What about playing in France?
Serena: We love it! Like Hellfest is one of my favorite shows we’ve ever played, the atmosphere when we play in France, whether it’s a club show or a festival, is always such a passionate warm crowd! We always feel a really great perception and we can’t wait to come back and play in October.

You also have a European tour planned for October, how do you prepare for this tour?
Serena: I download a lot of games on my Nintendo Switch (laughs). In seriousness, in terms of me personally preparing for tours is about fitness and making sure I gain lung capacity, so I will go running and swimming a lot before we go on tour, just to make sure my voice is in the best shape it can be for the shows and to make sure I don’t lose it. Watching what I eat as well, make sure we stay healthy and we also do a lot of rehearsals to make sure the set is right. We will be playing new songs for the first time from the new album, so that’s gonna need a lot of rehearsals to get it right.

How does Brexit affect the band?
Serena: It’s a massive pain in the ass (laughs). Brexit is so detrimental to the UK bands, now when we come over to mainland Europe, it costs us three times more money, we have to spend lots of time filling out lots of paperworks just to be able to get across, it’s really really difficult. We struggle financially now, which is crazy, we’re playing the biggest shows we’ve ever played in the mainland but with making less money with all the fees, the difficulties of the Brexit, so yeah, I hate it, I hate what it stands for, I didn’t vote for it and now I feel like we as a band and every other band from the UK are being punished for something they definitely didn’t vote for. It feels very unfair.

I understand, and it’s also hard for European bands to play in the UK too.
Serena: Exactly, the UK isn’t the most supportive country, so it’s not a great land for live music at the moment.

Are there any musicians or artists you would like to collaborate with?
Serena: Oh my god! All the artists I want to collaborate with don’t sound anything like Svalbard (laughs). So I’m a big Power Metal nerd and I think Tommy Johansson from Majestica (also Sabaton, ed.) has the most beautiful singing voice. I would love to write a song where he sings on, he’s also a phenomenal guitar player as well! Maybe I can have him play guitar and sing all the song, it would be incredible! Same with Floor Jansen from Nightwish, I’m really drown for those epic powerful singers, and I would love to hear how that could sounds like with our sound, which is so different but cool!

This album is the first with Nuclear Blast, how does this collaboration happen?
Serena: Nuclear Blast reached us after the success of our third album When I Die, Will I Get Better?, we were really surprised with some of the reviews and critical reception that album got, and the number of listens and streams it got, our third album was a great leap up for us, in terms of how well our audience received it, and I guess Nuclear Blast noticed us too, and they got in touch with us. It was like a dream come true for me, because all my favorite bands are on that record label, so it was just such an honor to explore this opportunity of working together and we really can’t wait for the future again.

If you had to organize a concert for The Weight of the Mask’s release show, which bands would you love to play with?
Serena: Oh a show where we can pick bands to play with us? I would pick all our friends and bands we are friends who come up through the scene together with, so I would pick Employed to Serve, Epica… actually just three bands would be cool!

Funny and last question: which dish would you compare your band’s music with?
Serena: I’m really bad with food, I basically just eat noodles (laughs), I’m probably not the best person to ask this question for! I would say… I’ve never been asked this (laughs)! Maybe something like sweet and sour, some sour rice or something. Because it’s got the kind of beauty of the guitar lead, the hopefulness of some of the melodies, but also the sour is the bitterness of the lyrics, and of the heavy side as well. So I’ll answer with sweet and sour rice (laughs)!

That was the last question for me, so thank you very much for your time and your music, last words are yours!
Serena: Thank you so much, it was really nice to talk to you! See you in Paris!

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