by Paris Fawcett
The past few years, understandably, have been a hotbed for rage-induced music. Sure, there are plenty of angry albums: but then there is It’s Hard To Have Hope. The level of directed scorn that pours from Svalbard on this record, released in 2018, was awe-striking. Focused not on the ambiguous fury that has found a host in a lot of modern heavy music, but on cutting through with punk lyrical sensibilities that leave nothing to the imagination. Where most bands will snarl for an abstract concept of the lost and the struggling, Svalbard roared for victims of revenge porn, unpaid interns and animals in shelters – and it was liberating.
Speaking to Svalbard’s lyricist and lead vocalist Serena Cherry about the band’s titan of a second album, she communicates not in sloganeering but with genuine passion and vitriol against the topics which have her heart. Each question rouses articulation and powerful emotion, but it all begins with a statement on how eschewing traditional writing techniques set the album on this course. “I decided I’m not going to worry about rhyming or using exactly six syllables,” she explains. “I’m going to make it direct and clear, so anyone reading can know where I stand – I don’t want there to be any ambiguity or room for interpretation. This is what these songs are about and there’s no way for people to make their own meaning from it.”
We’re used to the freedom of songwriters allowing us – the listeners – to form our own interpretation of the lyrics, but Svalbard’s rigid stance reinforces their points tenfold. You may need a lyric book at hand to fully realise them, but when it comes to the song titles Svalbard spell out their intentions. “The song titles are there as almost a challenge so if someone who doesn’t know about us picks up the record in HMV and then turns it around and sees those song titles, it’s a ‘this is the kind of content you’re going to be getting’ warning,” laughs Cherry. But as with everything on It’s Hard To Have Hope, the song titles are there to convey her beliefs with complete clarity: “This is how we stand. It’s not like I’m trying to force my beliefs in people’s faces but the songs do have a message and I want to be very clear about that.”
Because you harassed me
But if I speak out will you call me a Nazi?
Will you liken reactions to your misogyny
With one of the world’s most horrific atrocities?
As soon as you utter that phrase
You associate feminism with something so hated
So undesirable but wrapping our words up in thorns
Will not make them undiscussable”
Before this record it may have seemed ludicrous to hear a band opening an album with a song about unpaid interns or storming into the venomous ‘Revenge Porn’ – after all, these live outside of metal’s usual narratives. These songs come directly from Cherry’s personal experience or exist as topics she has read about and let fester inside of her. ‘How Do We Stop It?’ is based around an incident that happened to her at Germany’s Wacken Festival: “When you see your favourite band and a group of men surround you // And in the crush of the crowd they try to touch between your legs // They aggressively grope at your breasts // What should be a joyous shared experience becomes their opportunity to molest.”
Although not a victim of revenge porn herself, Cherry details the fear she lives in knowing that an untrustworthy ex has videos of her, and the power shift this presents. “How many have been left feeling too humiliated to seek help? // Broken by digital torment and desperate to get out // For years it has been a criminal offence but privacy protocols are written by men // And they often fail to spot the loopholes that permit the exploitation of women.” It’s lyrics like this that show the full extent of Cherry throwing away the songwriting rule of rhyming, and opening up the lines for maximum impact. “Why would you not use the rage, the aggression and the empowerment of playing metal to spread this message of outrage about these shitty things that are happening?”
Other than closing instrumental epic ‘Iorek’, each song on It’s Hard To Have Hope carries a lofty weight, but one in particular both cuts deep and raises fury in those that disagree: “The song that seems to be the most controversial seems to be ‘Pro-Life?’,” announces Cherry when the conversation turns to the thundering mid-point of the album. With 2019 marking the year of the Alabama abortion law coming into place and the wildfire that spread on social media and throughout the music scene because of it, the song’s relevance looms large, and attracts the multitudes that disagree. “That song gets a lot of pro-life people telling me how wrong I am, telling me how heartless I am because I’m not wanting a foetus to survive inside the womb of a mother who cannot provide or doesn’t want the child. It’s just so weird to me, they care about the baby until the minute it’s born, and then once its born, it comes into a world with no rights if it’s a girl.” The song questions the prioritisation of the fetus, the disregard of the mother’s life and attempts to put into perspective what a brutal transformation of the body that pregnancy is.
“Where the hell are you drawing the line? Why does an unborn baby deserve more rights?
Is she not worth protecting? Is hers not a life?”
Cherry comes from the school of thought that recognises that if these themes get people’s backs up, then they’re absolutely fulfilling their purpose: “I’m all for the power of not shutting out people who don’t agree with you or blocking and deleting their comments. No fuck that, have a conversation with them, talk to them, find out their reasons. At the moment I feel like ‘big society’ wants us more divided so the more we shut everything away, you’re not gonna make any progress or changes”. She sums it up simply: “I think opposition and discussion with opposition is how we generate a progressive change to a better future.”
Despite all of this abrasiveness, the epic ‘Try Not To Die Until You’re Dead’ lays bare a different type of powerful emotion from the band that have almost exhausted complete anger. “I will try not to die until I am dead // I may be aching and exhausted but life’s not over yet // So it doesn’t hurt to hope and it will never hurt to try”. Unexpectedly for the songwriter, what took form as a song about Cherry’s auto-immune disease found a home in the hearts of those struggling with mental illness. It’s a rare occasion where there is room for interpretation. Serena Cherry may cast a large impression through her lyricism and it can seem like she’s fueled by anger, but what’s really at work is an unwavering desire to be the change that she craves.
“I think my general ethos with Svalbard is to make those that are struggling under a sort of oppressive social climate feel less alone,” says Cherry, as she begins to reflect on her band’s purpose one year after the record’s release. “I believe we stand for the underdogs, we stand for representation for people who are not represented. We stand for problems which are not discussed enough in mainstream media. We’re pushing to be represented more so that things become normalised and discussed in a way that they aren’t. I want Svalbard to fight against this oppressive society. To constantly be standing up for equal rights and to just make people who are suffering because of it feel like there are allies out there.”
Cherry would like the album to be remembered for its bravery, but it should really be remembered for more than that. It pushed the boundaries of what constitutes socially-conscious metal; it didn’t just stand, but fought rampantly for the underdogs, and broke through the oversaturation of metal bands providing a comparatively easy, inoffensive listen. The words are a reminder that there’s someone there fighting your corner. It’s alive and vital, hopefully carrying just as powerful a message to those that contribute to the bigotry, hurt and pain that Svalbard write about as those who have been victim to it. Where so many songwriters aimlessly dream of invoking societal change through their music, Cherry is breaking boundaries to make it happen.