A smoke-filled basement lit only by the haze of a handful of colourful neon light tubes, with an assortment synthwave playing over the PA in the background, Manchester’s Soup Kitchen has been transformed into a setting within a sci-fi dystopia, a dim bunker that would not look out of place within Neo-Tokyo, nestled away from sensory overload of the cityscape. Massachusetts duo Boy Harsher, touring with new album Careful, could have easily elected to play a venue far larger than this, but it is in this closed-up atmospheric environment, in front of a rapturous sold-out crowd, that they become some truly special.
A name like Kontravoid conjures up a very specific mental image, a vision of grimy 16-bit shoot-‘em-ups, of 80s slasher movies in the vein of The Exterminator or Maniac Cop– in all honesty, it’s not far off. Dressed all in black with the sole exception of a brilliant white, completely blank kabuki mask, Kontravoid looks the part- a cyberpunk Michael Myers with an air of genuine menace emanating from his featureless face and deliberate body language (side note: electronic music, as a genre, has always allowed a level of creative anonymity more than in pop or rock- as the likes of Daft Punk and DeadMau5 can attest, you can have a full, lengthy career while effectively hiding in plain sight).
Kontravoid’s set begins with a wobbly bass pulse, the audio equivalent of a studio vanity card on an old video nasty, before bursting into heavy, percussive darkwave, a mixture from his self-titled debut album and last year’s Undone EP. Strobe lights have been synchronised up to the unrelenting kick drum- which of course hits like a jackhammer- giving an almost unnatural, inhuman movement to Kontravoid as he stalks across the stage with voice altered and processed into a demented howling and every motion amplified by the pounding harsh light.
While very much settled within the industrial/darkwave spectrum, there is some pop melodicism hidden beneath, buried away but sometimes rising into focus, reminiscent of Construction Time Again-era Depeche Mode or early Nine Inch Nails, muddied and claustrophobic against the driving beats, the human remnants inside the machine. Kontravoid is a force of nature, a grungy sci-fi grindhouse feature brought to life before an adoring audience who are left wanting more.
A synthetic clarinet swoops over a sequence of ominous pad chords as Boy Harsher start with cinematic opener “Keep Driving“, smooth but with an undercut of threat before the sound opens up with an Italians Do It Better-esque retrofuture groove. Boy Harsher are the latest in the storied tradition of two-person synthpop acts such as Yazoo and Soft Cell, working as a tandem between a stoic multi-instrumentalist and a powerful, soulful vocal courtesy of Jae Matthews, who possesses a tremendous range, both melodically and tonally- able to switch from a sultry murmur to full-blooded scream and shriek in an instant- especially in Careful standouts “Fate” and “Lost“.
The cyberpunk leanings are still clear, the music dancefloor-friendly while surrounded with grainy white noise- cold yet accessible, indebted to those who came before while striking out into the future.
The stage has been divided neatly in half, cleaved in two to separate Jae and instrumentalist Augustus Miller, which shows the duality of Boy Harsher (and of synthpop in general), with Jae free to use every last inch of her part of the stage, often leaning out from the very edge into the arms of the assembled throng, while Augustus remains trapped behind a mountain of wires and boxes, providing a never-ending assortment of pulses, Blade Runner-style keyboard sweeps and bass rumbles.
New single “LA“- with authentic DX7/Trevor Horn orchestral stabs- feels like a long-lost club hit from the mid-1980s, while “Tears” is an adrenaline rush of stylised futurepop. However, it is set-closer and possible ode to masochism “Pain” where Boy Harsher transcend: Jae’s voice- at once haunting and unhinged- smothered by Augustus’ electronic noise and interference set to a borderline-industrial club-happy beat.
Outside, it’s 2019. But not how Syd Mead saw it.