Within contemporary post-punk’s revival of dark, austere synth, Boy Harsher stood out with a distinctly modern take on the genre. During the late 2010s, the North Hampton-based duo distilled its stripped-down brand of hypnotic darkwave across releases like Pain and Careful. Over the pandemic, the pair, who met while studying film at the Savannah College of Art and Design, directed a short film and wrote its soundtrack, both titled The Runner. But the neon-drenched project can’t quite make up its mind about being a music video, a meta-commentary, or a horror story; even if the music remains technically competent, there isn’t nearly enough material in either medium to stay afloat.
Boy Harsher has typically confined itself to a limited palette, often to striking effect. But the danger of that intense focus tilting into claustrophobia has never been more apparent than on The Runner. Whether diegetic or in isolation, the songs feel sterile and flat. Tracks like “The Ride Home” and “Escape” are frustratingly sedate and seemingly engineered to slip out of your attention, and the generic monotony of its lyrics doesn’t help: “Baby, we can escape,” “Maybe we can escape,” etc. Although infused with more energy, the single “Machina,” a freestyle-tinged collaboration with BOAN’s Mariana Saldaña, doesn’t prove its worth beyond a closely traced ’80s emulation. Still, there are moments that shine in their simplicity: The group’s collaboration with bedroom pop artist Lucy on “Autonomy” feels fresh and riveting, tinged with morning light as it rolls over the film’s credits. Opener “Tower” builds the mythos of its protagonist in a series of cool threats ( “Don’t you say my name/You don’t want to know about me”) before exploding into a grotesque, splenetic column of horror synth.
In sequences dressed up in the colors and set design of Julia Ducournau and David Cronenberg, the film’s titular protagonist, played by King Woman’s Kristina Esfandiari, alternately seduces and murders an odd series of characters on her path of destruction. The aspects of psychological horror play as scènes à faire, and the Runner’s sexual and violent diversions become more expected than transgressive. The film, however, does achieve some frisson when zeroing in on individual scenes of choreography. “Give Me a Reason,” for example, plays somewhat tame in isolation, but it erupts into life as a score: Hostile and hypnotic, it tensely saturates the movement of a love triangle in a carmine-drenched bar. Though these slower, more deliberate moments are rare, the interaction between robotic choreography and the mechanical score shines far brighter than an otherwise muted plane of background synth.
The duo began working on the project in the wake of vocalist Jae Matthews’ diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. Describing the cathartic experience of writing for the lead character, Matthews explained, “[She] needs to flee all these disastrous situations she herself has created; she’s the ultimate self-saboteur.” That desire for freedom is epitomized in both The Runner’s film and soundtrack. The soundtrack succeeds with taut moments of electronic beauty, but it just as quickly slips into a frustrating, self-defeating insularity. While the precise formula of Boy Harsher’s music hasn’t faltered, The Runner’s soundtrack lacks drive, or a deeper expansion of their sound: It feels more like the musical equivalent of an engine idling.
Buy: Rough Trade
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