SVARTANATT – Last Days On Earth

Following a couple of strong releases in 2016 and 2018, Svartanatt made a long overdue return in 2023 with their single ‘Child of The Devil’. By opening with a riff that sounded like a souped up version of ‘Born To Be Wild’ meeting with a rough approximation of the early Blue Oyster Cult, the track wasn’t exactly shy in advertising the fact that the band’s music had taken on an even more retro feel than before, but with the aid of swirling organ worthy of Ken Hensley, a rousing chorus loaded with gang vocals – albeit half buried under a bluster of guitar and keys – and a strong speed driven groove, it suggested that the forthcoming album would be an absolute blast. Fans were not to be short changed.

For gaining an immediate reaction, that was the obvious choice of single, but adopting a slightly more mature approach to composition in places, ‘Last Days’ is an album filled with an impressive, and sometimes superior, array of rock and blues rock sounds, all of which sound like a massive celebration of times past. Perhaps what’s most impressive about the record as a whole is the fact that Svartanatt’s love of retro rock obviously rises beyond massive Joe Bonamassa-esque bluesy homages, or sub-Zep stompers. Like the underrated Dead Feathers, they’ve made a record that’s unafraid to take the old and familiar and make it sound even older.

Delivering some of the biggest hard rock thrills, ‘I’m Ready’ deliberately flaunts an old riff that could’ve been pulled straight from Deep Purple’s ‘Machine Head’ to drive a strong verse. The interplay between guitarist Felix Gassle and keys man Martin Borgh is immediately impressive, especially in the way Borgh drops stabs of Hammond between the sharper edges, almost as if channelling the ghost of Jon Lord, and even once the track gains momentum, their hard driving approach never abates. During the instrumental break, the lead guitar calls out with an impressive sharpness, the keys come back in a time honoured call and response, and the rhythm section, too, can be found putting in some very hard yards. It would all be for nought if the song didn’t hold up, of course, but there are no fears on that score. It’s huge, and even a little cheesy, but there’s plenty in the way the band deliver an instantly sing-along chorus – something that would certainly go down brilliantly live – that sweeps the listener along with its boundless enthusiasm. With a few gruff vocals, and a very natural production sound, it’s a great homage to classic rock.

Similarly, ‘Mad Stranger’ goes straight for the gut with a really punchy arrangement, and although its verses take a small stylistic shift towards something that occasionally sounds like a Bad Company-esque band working through riffs from late 70s pub rockers, there are still plenty of sounds in common with the rest of the record. You’ll find huge slabs of swirling organ beneath the crashy rhythms, and a sharp lead guitar break that makes no secret of the band’s immense power when really going for it. Jani Lehtinen’s vocals, too, take a further leap into the realms of rawness, creating a sound that – although never the most melodic – seems perfect for the job in hand. With a bigger and warmer sound, this would merely be a decent rock track, but the band’s decision to give it the kind of send off usually reserved for a slightly punkier garage rock band just gives it an extra energy.

Stretching out into something more melodic, the brilliant ‘Keep On Movin’ opens with a very casual jazz based intro, before the band explodes into a mid tempo groove that blends blues rock and soul with a seamless flair. The album’s raw sound doesn’t necessarily do its best for the melodies – there are various chorus harmonies here that deserved to be smoother, and the lead seems to be a slight mismatch with the soulful influence – but if you can bend your ears past that, it’s another track brimming with great moments. The guitar work slides effortlessly between chopping riffs on a big chorus into bluesy inflections beneath the verse’s vocal; a solid bass – courtesy of Anton Fors – holds onto a very muscular groove, and the featured solo is perfectly pitched. Anton’s bass is much higher in the mix during ‘The Crows’, a quirky number that marries a glam-ish stomp with the massive pomp of ‘Return To Fantasy’ era Uriah Heep which, again, finds Svartanatt happily working through some very retro tropes with a certain amount of glee. As is often the case here, the old sounds still have plenty of excitement, and between an array of neo-futuristic keys, drummer Daniel Heaster’s urgent approach, and a sharp lead guitar break, the short track still has plenty of musical depth and an all round gutsiness that is very sympathetic to the band’s garage-ish sound.

‘Demons In The Night’ adds more strength to an already enjoyable album via its intro and almost Who-like combo of crashing drums and overdriven guitars, before taking a dog leg into an almost swampy 70s rock arrangement where more hints of early BOC colour a strong melody. It’s great to hear the keys constantly busying themselves beneath an enthusiastic vocal, already making it a great listen, but things step up a gear when the guitar work introduces a busy lead riff and eventually indulges in a semi-bluesy solo. You’ll have heard similar stuff from Svartanatt in the past, but there’s an enthusiasm here that’s hard to beat. Another highlight, ‘What You Want’ brings together most of Svartanatt’s best traits in one epic blast. Across an intensive five minutes, you’ll encounter a moody groove set above an atmospheric guitar setting a melodic intro in place, before the band launches into a punchy rock groove where choppy guitar lines underscore an enthused vocal. Then, it’s all change again for a doomy guitar riff, counterbalanced by almost sci-fi like keys. These distinctly different moods would carry a great track, but since Svartanatt have made time to explore a huge twin lead guitar riff that uses a massive, soaring melody borrowed from Saxon’s ‘Frozen Rainbow’ and even attempted an enegetic solo that sounds like a garage band tribute to Skynyrd, it just gets better and better. No matter where you drop into this number, you’ll find something brilliant. In many ways, it should be considered the flagship tune for ‘Last Days’.

Production wise, ‘Last Days On Earth’ isn’t as crisp as 2018’s ‘Starry Eagle Eye’, but the stylistic choice is very deliberate. By giving the sound a very live feel in places, or making the drums a little distorted, or even pushing some of the vocals further back in the mix, Svartanatt have created a much older sounding album, which really serves their hugely retro sound. If not for the growling and echo on some of the vocals, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled across a rare, independent release from 1972 here – and that just makes an enjoyable album even greater. They’ve shown great promise since their arrival on the European rock scene, but this third record is the one that really deserves to put Svartanatt on the map.

January 2024