As musical subgenres continue to multiply and cross-pollinate, it becomes challenging to describe a band’s sound. While this bodes well for music fans looking for something unique, it makes it difficult for critics to convey just what it is about a band’s music that sets them apart from others.
For example, how does one craft an elevator pitch for a band like Boy Harsher? The duo of Augustus Muller and Jae Matthews make electronic dance music, but that doesn’t quite explain a track like “Keep Driving,” which opens their new release Careful.
The noisy whooshing of passing cars is interspersed with a repeated effect that sounds like a power grid failure. All the while, a staccato beat builds until Matthews’ voice slinks in. She speaks rather than sings, as anxious saxophones bleat in the background. The effect is uncomfortable but spellbinding, like rewatching a particularly grotesque scene from a horror movie over and over, even though you know it will give you nightmares.
The quasi-instrumental track “Crush” generates a similar atmosphere, with music that feels like missing tracks from Blade Runner underneath emotional snippets of conversations or movie dialogue. Despite not having any discernible melody, it doesn’t feel at all out of place on the album.
Even the tracks on Careful that rely on melodies (and intensely hooky ones, at that) veer between gauzy and guttural, as if the listener is not only experiencing innocence corrupted but also reveling in the debasement. “Face the Fire,” which is an absolutely gorgeous slice of dance pop, comes across as more ominous than uplifting, thanks to lyrics like “Pull me up tonight / by my broken teeth and my lies.”
It’s easy to hear similarities between Matthews’ deep, throaty vocals and those of Siouxsie Sioux, but Matthews’ delivery is closer to that of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker at his most uninhibited. When Matthews sings “the fire makes me wild,” you don’t doubt it for a second.
Having seen Boy Harsher open for The Soft Moon in 2018, I can confirm that they are as mesmerizing in a live setting as they are on Careful. Matthews gives herself wholly to her vocal performances; at times, she feels like she’s at one with the crowd, even while she is clearly describing quite personal stories of love, obsession and loss.
“L.A.” takes mid-1980s synth flourishes and marries them with a throbbing drumbeat and lyrics that practically bleed out of the speakers: “Will you want me either way? / I’m hiding in your mind / just hiding in that mind / you will hurt me either way / it’s a matter of your time.” This is sensual and sinister stuff. Equally dark and dirty is “Come Closer,” where Matthews’ shrieks and whoops punctuate lyrics like “You have got a dirty little secret / Can I keep it?” over a tight synth beat.
By comparison, “The Look You Gave (Jerry)” feels bittersweet, like reading old diary entries and feeling a mixture of shame and nostalgia. There is a retro industrial quality to “Tears,” while the last song proper on the album, “Lost,” is an intoxicating blend of Matthews’ vocal idiosyncrasies: both sultry singing and breathy spoken word confessions.
Boy Harsher makes music that evokes a range of feelings from sadness to sexual arousal to sudden, uncontrollable urges to dance, and sometimes all three at once. It’s impossible to pin this band down, and that is a big part of what makes them so enticing. Even the cover art shares these liminal qualities, depicting what looks like two offset frames of 35 mm film capturing an androgynous figure in the middle of either falling onto or getting up from a bed, with an ambivalent, glassy look in their eyes.
The final track on Careful is another example of how enigmatic Boy Harsher can be. It’s one half of a whispered phone conversation that ends with these foreboding words: “I was thinking of you and figured I’d call. It’s getting late. Just, um, tell me you’re careful out there.” There’s no solace in the music of Boy Harsher, only a feeling that we are all facing the same fears and uncertainties. Yet, sometimes, that is solace enough.
Careful was released February 1 on Nude Club Records.
Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.