Boy Harsher’s “The Runner (Original Soundtrack)” examines the human condition through the lens of campy horror
At the brink of 2020’s semi-social collapse, the live music scene dwindling to a low hum, Boy Harsher dug deep into their artistic beginnings and crafted an entirely new world.
Jae Matthews and Augustus Muller, the iconic darkwave synth duo known as Boy Harsher, met studying film in Savannah, Georgia. Their gravitation toward music arose a tool for multimedia expression, with Muller writing soundscapes for experimental VHS imagery sculpted by Matthews. In 2014, they began releasing dark, synth-heavy industrial dance sounds, marking their fame when acclaimed track “Pain” rose from the underground. Now, it seems that Matthews and Muller have created a conceptual masterpiece with The Runner (Original Soundtrack), locking into the pain and uncertainty that many have felt in the past few years.
Beginning as a series of pre-pandemic songs, spring of 2020 forced the artists into a change of plans and gave way to new directions. Part-way through that year, Matthews was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Matthews took time to rest and adjust to this new condition in their home state of Massachusetts. As they continued to write, the resulting album from this time of uncertainty touches on the human condition and the many meanings of heartbreak. In a stunning show of artistic merit and world building, the tracks double as the soundtrack to a campy art-horror meets meta-“making-of”-documentary, The Runner.
Striking synthesizer hits have gone hand-in-hand with horror of all kinds since the 1980s. The Runner embraces this aesthetic, leaning into use of old televisions, wall-hanging landlines, and the rich color and texture of film. The video focuses on a figure who appears to be “The Runner”: a reckless and secretly menacing figure, blood dripping from the mouth. Throughout the confusion and chaos, Boy Harsher’s soundtrack sits beautifully in the forefront. It appears as a traditional soundtrack might, serving the scenes and mood of this abstract narrative. But uniquely, the songs and their music videos also appear on TV screens as viewed by characters, audio fading naturally as characters walk closer or further away from the screens at which they’re watching. Occasionally, in a true meta-like twist there appears behind-the-scenes-like footage of the band recording—woven, entangled in the nightmare of the plot.
The tracks themselves are mystifying. The Runner (Original Soundtrack) follows a true soundtrack style—including instrumentals “Untitled (Piano)” and “The Ride Home”—while remaining true to the vision of Boy Harsher’s signature sound.
“Tower” hits soft and sweet with sweeping synth droplets, dripping in like a leaky faucet. Matthew’s vocals are breathy and raw, holding out for hope in a sea of melancholy. As the suspense grows, a creeping feeling builds until “Give Me A Reason” appears as a sort of main character interlude. The track is catchy and sultry. This is The Runner’s first appearance: “Speak of the devil/ And she will appear/ Afraid of the runner/ Who draws herself near.”
“Escape” captures the essence of the conceptual theme, leaning into a natural inclination toward escapism. The final track, “I Understand” speaks to similar sentiments, only more resigned. This is the end of the battle, relinquishing hope, resigned to a loss of what once was. “If you wanna run away/ That’s all you gotta say/ And I will/ Understand.”
Like any good soundtrack, this album features guest artists who appear on two of the eight tracks. In “Machina,” Mariana Salaña (of Boan) sings alongside a ‘80s dance beat, charmingly uptempo. Singing both in English and Spanish, she describes a Machine with no heartbeat, providing commentary on a contemporary attachment to technology. The music video within a video offers an image of Salaña dancing in latex alongside a silver-painted “Strong Man” (who is perhaps a human representation of the Machine, or perhaps just a surreal accent to the dark and campy nature of it all.)
“Autonomy,” featuring Cooper B. Handy (of Lucy), touches deeper on the human experience as antithesis to the machine. Human complexity is deep and entangled, yet the song casts light on the comfort of shared experience in a mutual expectation of inevitable death.
The Runner (Original Soundtrack) and corresponding film portray the insides of humanity: people make mistakes and run from what they fear. They isolate and break, but they also survive in times of hardship and hold each other close. Through the soundtrack’s dark and dulcet tones, there remains a beating human heart (lest it get ripped out by The Runner.)