Boy Harsher – The Runner (Original Soundtrack)

There’s a certain mood that descends in the midwest around the middle of February. Both holiday revelry and the subsequent January stoicism have fizzled, leaving in their wake a simmering resentment—and often outright anger—at the layers of deadly ice coating everything, the blasts of frigid air sweeping across the CTA platform, your stupid apartment that feels increasingly claustrophobic even though you keep rearranging the furniture. I had a handful of concert tickets heading into March 2020, one of them being Boy Harsher, because what could be a better antidote to that February poison than a packed, neon-drenched club and some absolutely abyssal disco? But then the worst happened, and I didn’t go to that show or any others, and that February feeling remained unresolved. No catharsis. For about two years.

Imagine my joy when I’m handed a copy of the brand new Boy Harsher album The Runner (Original Soundtrack), the thrill I felt when I see that the accompanying short horror film is being screened at my beloved PizzaPlex right here in Detroit. My anticipation at the thought of being around other human beings, communally listening to music. 

So my partner and I show up on a cold Saturday night, walking past the bar and glowing pizza oven into a dim side room set with rows of chairs and a projector casting a hazy beam toward the screen. Soon to be entering a parallel universe, where the Blockbuster horror section is still full of VHS tapes and Lauren Servideo is a blessed hybrid of Elvira and a corporate instructional video personality.  

The opening track “The Tower” acts as a proof of concept, a sharp and focused sampler of horror score influences demonstrating the duo’s soundtracking chops. It works: the song creeps in like the ghost of Ennio Morricone, a lonely note soon joined by the low, urgent voice of Jae Matthews. ‘80s revivalism has boosted horror soundtracks over the last decade, from the maximalism of Stranger Things, to the queasy intimacy of It Follows and Censor, to the prog bacchanal of Mandy. Boy Harsher both continues and expands the trend as the ominous opening synths of “The Tower” burst into blown-speakers noise, signaling the bloody trajectory of The Runner and its hypnotic lead, Kris Esfandiari. 

“Give Me A Reason” feels straightforward, a midnight-black, dance-ready gem anchored by a propulsive drum machine. The song’s simplicity is its genius; a central beat and melody serving as a foundation for layer after layer of new sounds, filling the dead air with harsh instruments and cold, false voices. “Speak of the devil, and she will appear,” indeed. As we drove home after the screening, I could see a light through the stained glass of one of Detroit’s abandoned cathedrals, and I pictured this track echoing through the empty sanctuary like an undead pulse.        

Autonomy,” featuring Cooper B. Handy (aka Lucy), appears third on the album but is played to great effect over the closing credits of the film. Handy brings welcome levity to the early scenes of The Runner as well, and the closing images of him singing and dancing, all smiles, striped shirt and sunshine, is a perfect coda. The song itself is one of the album’s highlights and proves that Boy Harsher could have scored a John Hughes film just as easily as a Wes Craven one. Handy has a breathy and optimistic delivery, lending the same credence to both dense koans like “memory’s a blessing in a safe mind” and platitudes like “I know these things take time.” But it’s Matthews who steals the show on the pre-chorus. “What do you see in me? What will come when we run?” Darkwave isn’t a genre often known for its warmth, but the vulnerability and solemn kindness in her voice are enough to instantly melt through the rest of the album’s iciness, reframing the whole affair (and the film’s titular Runner) with new sympathy. The art of the feature is a subtle one, with missteps leading to dilution or distraction, but Boy Harsher nails it; both Handy and Mariana Saldaña (BOAN) are perfect guests. 

Saldaña’s turn on “Machina” is a hellish, cyberpunk dance explosion. In the film, she vogues in a skin-tight black leather suit, red nails and lipstick blending in with the wash of red light behind her, as a body-builder coated in silver paint flexes in the background. It’s a Lynchian tableau (like several scenes in The Runner) that resists easy interpretation, but Saldaña’s magnetic presence and icy weaponized Spanish get the point across. In an episode of Stefanie Franciotti and Alex Goldman’s nerdy and delightful podcast Synthfreq, Saldaña tells a skin-crawling tale of encountering the ghost of an old man in a hotel room and divulges her sensitivity to the spirit world. Watching her eyes as she danced, I was struck anew by that story and its implications; when someone lives in awareness of another plane of existence, that sensitivity reveals itself in their actions, movements and art. And as a consumer of said art, the extra layer is easily apparent—even if the meaning is not.

I just finished a book called A Little Course in Dreams by Robert Bosnak, in which the author posits that dream interpretation is impossible if the interpreter relies on waking logic. Instead, the dreamer and the interpreter must enter a dream together, letting the dream imagery itself dislodge subconscious thoughts and feelings in the dreamers. I see The Runner as a dream given to us by Matthews and Augustus Muller. It is non-linear, challenging and surreal. It feels both fully-realized and half-finished. It doesn’t give up its secrets when approached head-on. 

Matthews was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2020, and both Muller and Matthews were artists and performers in the midst of a global catastrophe. An album alone may not have had the capacity to capture the turmoil and growth of the ensuing years, so instead of an album, we received a dream. And the more time I spend in that dream world, the more I begin to understand.

One of the most beautiful moments in the film is during the song “Escape,” a song that begins  with intentional unease, synth bubbles bursting like boils, glass cracking, engines revving. But about halfway through, as two dancers spin and leap through an empty room, a celestial melody comes drifting in and the promised escape finally comes: “What is done is done, my old friend.” The structure of “Escape” is reminiscent of a Nick Cave favorite of mine, “And No More Shall We Part,” a pained lament that gives way to transformational and serene acceptance. The Runnerboth the album and the film—are a macrocosm of this narrative, and demonstrate that Boy Harsher are made up of much more than the sardonic coldwave nihilism they are known and loved for. It is an ambitious, gestalt project, and marks a complex and thrilling direction for a singular duo. 

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