Boy Harsher Are Stealing Back the Club
Boy Harsher are challenging the divide between band and club music. They're revisiting the early 1980s and not to dwell in nostalgia, but to pick up where bands like Cabaret Voltaire left off.
I'm late and the show is about to begin. There's little room to move, but I manage to get past the grey hairs, blue hairs, and no hairs to find my spot at the front. I chat away with my cousin, commenting on how we've never seen such a packed venue remain so quiet before the music has come on. We feel the suspense. We feel the anticipation. This isn't an event where half the crowd was dragged into the night by some tragic best friend. Everyone is here because Boy Harsher is their personal, private discovery.
Distortion starts crawling out of the speakers. It builds and builds as smoke rises onto the stage. The noise is thick and unrelenting, and just as it reaches what must be its full, grumbling potential, Boy Harsher's Augustus Muller and Jae Matthews appear in a haze of red light. The distortion breaks, and Muller rolls up his already rolled sleeves. He triggers some beats, opening the set with one of their more reserved titles, "Send Me a Vision". Matthews crouches down by some gear and fiddles around with a few settings. She lifts a microphone and pours some aching, indecipherable words into it. Looking wide-eyed into the crowd, the show has begun.
Inoffensive electronica climbs into a harder brand of techno. Guttural synths and pulsating basslines surge endlessly to the sound of Matthews' raspy sex-talk. Jaw-drops are paraded between friends. Matthews keeps close to her gear, using it to modulate the already distant, yearning tone of her voice. Her lyrics speak of lust, ecstasy, pain, and uncertainty. I turn to my cousin with a this-is-the-place look on my face. Matthews pulls out some torch-like object and switches it on. Green lasers shoot out into the audience, lines of light slice the crowd.
Swirling electronica becomes all-consuming. Beats thud away at double the pace of Muller's fist-pumps. I concede wholeheartedly to the direction of the stage. Thumps drone with such regularity, such ferocity, and yet Matthews' voice cuts through the haze. In her wet, lascivious tone, she asks what we think we're trying to prove, if we feel uncomfortable, what it is we're doing here. She tells us we have nothing left, that we should tempt the pain and disappear. Only when Matthews sings her last lyric and Muller lets the distortion fade out, does the trance that binds us, break, and we are released.
When Boy Harsher arrived on the scene in 2014, they made their intentions clear - they would not go forth in silence. They committed to an artistic palate that combined film, theatrics, graphic design, electronics, and an awful lot of humanity. They looked back to the 1980s and found character and life in early forms of industrial and electronic body music (EBM) and thought it only right to piece them together in a band format. And just like that, Boy Harsher carried off their most noteworthy feat. They reclaimed ambitious electronic music for the band and stole back the club.
Now, I grew up as a rock guy. I understood that anything electronic was the property of DJs and producers, and I, a rock guy, got live vocals, guitars, and drums. I was comfortable with this division and truthfully didn't think all that much about it. Boy Harsher, however, recognized its absurdity and sought to change it. Not only was this division between musical worlds arbitrary, but it was completely ahistorical. Boy Harsher understood that when electronic music was in its infancy, it was there to accompany the contemporary band offering and not to exist as some alternative pathway restricted to DJs and producers. And we're not just talking about your warm and fuzzy synths here – we're talking about the full nightclub assortment.
Boy Harsher are picking up electronic music where it got lost in the mid-1980s. When Kraftwerk started playing to a post-war, inspiration-soaked Germany in 1970 (see Julian Cope's compendium of German experimental music, Krautrocksampler), they were doing so to extend the expressive potential of the modern band. Just as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane had dived deeper into psychedelic guitars and vocals to soundtrack the ambitions of America's youth, Kraftwerk used electronic sounds to articulate man's declining value in a mechanized society. Electronic instruments became part of the expressive arsenal of the band, but the band format itself remained unchanged. Here were four men engaging a live audience with a message that spoke to their common experience – no different from the Beatles, right?
But it wasn't so much Kraftwerk as their English successors who provided Boy Harsher's musical rulebook. Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Ultravox, Fad Gadget, Gary Numan, the Human League, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. All of these bands saw something stale in the contemporary band offering and believed that electronic music was capable of steering it back on track. Electronic music didn't just yield to the skill of the player; it exploded forth unconstrained and expressed man's feeling in a technologically saturated world. With unbounded experimental capabilities, electronic music promised to grow with the post-war world, to express its confusion, and ultimately, to be its companion soundtrack.
Then came the great divergence that doomed electronic music to the club and bands to the stage. Albums like Depeche Mode's Speak and Spell, the Human League's Dare!, and Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret pushed electronic music into the mainstream. They provided the platform for new bands to emerge who weren't particularly familiar with its ideological roots. Stereotypical synthpop began to take form, with luscious, rose-filtered synth tracks underscoring the work of A Flock of Seagulls, A-Ha, Duran Duran, Erasure, Talk Talk and numerous other new wave pop bands. With the exception of groups like Depeche Mode, bold electronic music withdrew into the production studio, championed by the likes of New Order, and other bands who continued the legacy of the earlier generation found themselves on the sidelines of the musical world.
Except for the short-lived popular industrial scene of the 1990s and artists like Nine Inch Nails, hard-hitting electronic music was stripped from the band's arsenal. Alongside the growth of mixing/DJ culture and the success of the 12-inch extended play format, electronic music became embedded in the club, but gone was the band to accompany it. Producers would make it, DJs would play it, and the audience would dance to it. But where were the people behind the music?
In walks Boy Harsher with a series of dark, arpeggiated beats. That very first single, "Pain", dived into the contemporary nightclub scene for inspiration, and returned to the surface with the most ideologically-rich sounds of the aching now, EBM. Originally fashioned by artists like DAF and Front 242 as a Cold War-era expression of Europe's distaste for America, EBM has been reintroduced by contemporary artists like Phase Fatale and Schwefelgelb to motivate a rethinking of just how far we've come over the past 40 years. Sounding a lot like industrial music built for the dancefloor, EBM underscores all of Boy Harsher's tracks. However, what binds those very songs together is a human presence long forgotten in the club environment.
As Matthews' ethereal vocals swept over Muller's charging beats, my cousin turned to me and said that these tracks wouldn't be out of place in a techno set. That is precisely the point. In all of their decisions, Boy Harsher are challenging the divide between band and club music. They're revisiting the early 1980s and not to dwell in nostalgia, but to pick up where bands like Cabaret Voltaire left off.
Their intentions come through in their collaborations. Like the electronic artists they reference, Boy Harsher's catalogue features remixes by some of the more revered producers and DJs of today, from EBM producer, Silent Servant, to Berghain resident and member of the techno elite, Marcel Dettmann. Their goal is bold, and the outcome is clear. Boy Harsher are proving once again that electronic music can be played to much the same effect as it can be spun.
Boy Harsher are realigning us with a musical legacy that sought to use all available technology to capture and communicate human experiences. They're soldering the pieces of our musical past together to create club music that pumps with human blood.