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Boy Harsher - Careful Music Album Reviews

A decade after minimal wave seemed to reach its peak, the Massachusetts duo proves the style’s continued vitality.

A few weeks ago, at a bar in Brooklyn known for its metal and goth affiliations, a DJ in the back room was running through a playlist thick with synths. The old standbys—Bauhaus, Joy Division, Soft Cell, Siouxsie and the Banshees—made their appearances, as did a younger generation of artists like New York’s Xeno & Oaklander, Montreal duo Essaie Pas, and the Northampton, Massachusetts, group Boy Harsher. Among the more recent crop, one song stood out: Boy Harsher’s “Motion.” It was, like other songs played that night, dark and driving, powered by stark, acrid synthesis and barreling drums. But something about it felt unusually immediate.

Producer Augustus Muller’s synth chords moved with angry purpose while his jagged little basslines gave the song its groove, and Jae Matthews’ husky, smudged-out vocals conveyed a ghostly feeling of longing. There are a few jolting moments like this on the band’s new record, Careful—like “Come Closer,” where the synth bounces like a pinball caught between two flashing bumpers while the drum machine thumps with reckless abandon. Or there’s the bracing “Tears,” where spiraling keyboard and percussion build and build into a menacing cyclone of dark pop. It’s easy to imagine these tracks playing well to the goth clubs of the world, but it’s chiseled and streamlined in a way that suggests it might also slip into the cracks of a techno set. That in-betweenness is what makes Boy Harsher’s work, and that of their peers, so interesting.

In the late 2000s, when the DJ Veronica Vasicka popularized the term “minimal wave” to describe the barbed-wire sound of decades-old DIY electronic music, minimal electronic music was in fashion. You could hear it throughout New York nightlife at club series like Wierd, and it seemed, as Louis Pattison notes, that this old-new aesthetic was at its peak. But as bands like Boy Harsher or Essaie Pas have made clear, the reign of minimal synth continues unabated into the second decade of the 21st century, and the style’s variety and versatility continue to grow.

While the palette of sounds Boy Harsher plays with on Careful can seem limited—brisk drum machine loops, oscillating synths, and Matthews’ haunting incantations—the group finds ways to make each song sound distinct. From the morose slow burn of “LA” to the frenzied bounce of “The Look You Gave (Jerry),” the duo shows how far it can stretch a unified sound. Apart from some less-successful forays into soundtrack-like textures and atmospheric ambience, like the John Carpenter-lite of “Crush,” the record is mostly geared towards movement and heat and sweat. That Boy Harsher will soon play Berghain, Berlin’s temple of techno, speaks to the music’s contemporary vitality. Scrappy and spirited, minimal synth music lives on.

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