Boy Harsher : The Runner (Original Soundtrack)

Wood-paneled station wagons, doors open, lights on, fog creeping across cold grass, pinks and purples and reds in neon spilling out of the earth, a shadowy figure lingering on the horizon, the gentle persistent beep from the dash like even the car itself is crying out for help. Even if you didn’t know that this was a soundtrack, you’d be able to tell in a heartbeat. Granted, Boy Harsher‘s music has always leaned toward the cinematic; and it should, considering its two main members met while studying film. It helps, obviously, that this isn’t a soundtrack for another artist but in fact themselves, the band having created a short film with this as the running music. That synchrony of their talents feels less like an adventurous leap for this group that fait accompli. Like when Master Boot Record created VirtuaVerse or Kavinsky with their carman hybrid concept, this kind of hybrid of darkwave and synth-pop demands this kind of cross-media approach to fully actualize itself.

It is unfair, certainly, if we think about the way this kind of industrial-adjacent approach to synth-oriented pop music got relegated to a purely nostalgic viewpoint. There are plenty of other genres that get away with being purely iterative, from the recent crop of frankly incredible traditional death metal bands to the entire world of traditional progressive rock to the never-ending supply of by-the-book hardcore or throwback hip-hop. Nonetheless, this kind of goth music often winds up being labeled with some kind of retro genre description, something which seems more often a means to minimize analyzing the song structures and strength of their evocations. The filmic basis for this kind of music has been present since the genre’s foundation roughly 45 years ago as the electronic industrial pioneers of the ’70s laid the groundwork for the blissed out coldwave of the ’80s. This direct filmic tie on the part of Boy Harsher, especially a film under their own control, feels less like a mandatory aspect of these songs and more like, just as with all the best conceptually driven works, an ordering paradigm that can slip comfortably in the background. What matters most is that these songs make sense together, build off of each other’s moods, twist and maneuver the gradually evolving cumulative psychic palette.

There is a sonic breadth here on a track-by-track basis that surpasses their debut Careful, managing to play in various electronica, synth-pop and goth subgenres comfortably. The fascinating thing, however, is how this fact almost entirely disappears as you listen to the record. What comes to mind are less these startling standout moments, the way this record cuts against their perhaps constrained debut, but more the way it feels like a single continuous sensual whole. Part of this might be the fault of having little in the way of foregrounded eruptive melodies; this album is nearly devoid of catchy hooks, the kind of earworms that compel even the most resolutely gothic to the dancefloor to erase the mind in waves of hedonistic nihilistic glee.

This would be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that this is a soundtrack; this record may fail in the realm of extractable pop hits and clear single potential but where it succeeds is the cumulative atmosphere it amounts to, the ability to lock in to a post-Kraftwerk electronic rhythm dappled with these machinery surges. “Machina” for instance, a killer track, feels more like a brief melodically-focused movement in a bigger tapestry. Another band, or perhaps even this one were this not a soundtrack, would find the HI-NRG success of these clear and concise hooks as the basis of an entire record’s approach, especially in the post Carly Rae Jepsen world. Not Boy Harsher. They are resolute in the task of this record as a soundtrack and so, with great discipline, allow this to serve the role of the big song requisite in all great ’80s slashers before subsuming it back into the flesh of endless gothic ambiance.

In comparison to Careful, it is hard to parse whether The Runner is a step forward or backward. It is clearly less interested in song-oriented enjoyment and, as a complete set, certainly succeeds more than the former; it’s impossible not to let the record turn back over and start playing again from side A the second it finishes, and the transition of the last to the first track almost feels designed for this purpose. The role of The Runner in their body of work will only make sense in the passing of time when we see whether this is a one-off experiment, the start of a devoted less song-oriented direction for the group or a means to have a focused exercise in album-length composition and pacing that serves to enhance later song-driven work. This aside, however, The Runner capably succeeds in its goals and in execution of its aesthetic vision. We can have the art criticism discussion of the evolutionary paths of the compositional and melodic shape of a band and its exploration of genre space and history, but god damn is seething hateful neon fucking cool.

Label: Nude Club/City Slang

Year: 2022

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