PICK OF THE WEEK: Dark folk duo Barren Harvest expose doom, darkness on ‘Subtle Cruelties’

Barren HarvestWe have made this point before, but it probably bears repeating. You don’t have to play heavily, loudly, and with pure evil pouring out of your soul in order to convey true darkness and hopelessness. In fact, sometimes the quiet approach is the way to go, because the sounds easily can disarm you and catch you off guard when things go south.

You can find all the evidence you need of that theory with “Subtle Cruelties,” the debut full-length record from doom-ridden, dark folk duo Barren Harvest. Now, when I say it has doom elements, do not expect droning violence and muddy punishment that’ll wreck your eardrums. I mean doom in the dictionary sense, of some impending terrible state hanging above your head, because you do get a sense of that going on here. That doesn’t mean destruction, necessarily. It can just be life’s everyday blackness, the woe that accompanies a dissolved relationship, or one’s own depression, that can own us and drive us further and further into the ground.

Barren Harvest coverThe two artists represented here should be known to most metal fans, especially those who visit this site with any regularity. Jessica Way (vocals/guitar/autoharp), of the mighty and dream-inducing Worm Ouroboros, and Lenny Smith (vocals/synth), of the destructive and psychologically chaotic Atriarch, are your two voices, and together they conjure a sound that’s decidedly not metal but could find favor among those who like Agalloch’s quieter moments, Amber Asylum, Ulver, Dead Can Dance, and, of course, Worm Ouroboros. That doesn’t mean the music here sounds like those bands. Rather, their fans probably will understand and appreciate this record more than, say, a Grave Miasma devotee. Both Way and Smith have traveled shadowy territories with their other bands, so this is not new territory. But what they bring to the table is pretty different from anything Smith has done before, and even pushes Way into foggier territory.

“Subtle Cruelties” also is immersed deeply in poetry. The duo found inspiration in Lord Tennyson’s work “In Memoriam,” that mourns the loss of a friend (namely his friend Arthur Hallam who was supposed to marry Tennyson’s sister), and it gets laced through the many “Memoriam” tracks included here, most of which are brief, ghostly interludes. Also, Rumi’s poem “Silent Articulation of a Face” inspired their song “The Bleeding,” that leads off the album, and led to them coining the collection “Subtle Cruelties.” So just from that, you get a sense of the solemnity and sadness that pervade this record, which is darker than many black metal albums.

The record opens with the aforementioned “The Bleeding,” that has thick synth, acoustic picking, and Way’s mesmerizing singing, though later Smith slips in and she takes over harmonies. That’s something that happens a lot on this record, that being one of them takes leads and the other backs up with texture-building harmonies. The song itself gives me the feeling of walking alone at night in abandoned sections of woods, with the feelings of exhilaration and fright working together. Next are three consecutive “Memoriam” cuts, the first with birds chirping and foggy keyboards, the second packed with murky synthesizer, Way’s voice haunting, piano drizzling over the cut, and the song’s spirit hanging in the air. The third has Smith uttering a simple line in a quick bit that’s over in about 10 seconds. “Heavens Age” follows, opening with somber acoustic guitars and Smith’s baritone vocals taking over, with him hitting deep, sometimes detached notes. Way then switches over to the front and delivers some of her most forceful vocals on the record, with her wondering, “What causes heavens to age?” It’s a chilling track.

“Memoriam IV” opens with Way whispering, “When fill’d with tears that cannot fall, I brim with sorrow drowning song,” from Tennyson, and that leads into “Coil Uncoil,” that is built on acoustic guitars and Smith’s raw vocals, that sound filled with torment. “I surround myself in the darkness,” he calls, before Way slips back in and takes the reins for the rest of the song. This track might remind you of a cold autumn day, when rain soaks your clothes and you can’t get a hint of warmth in your body. “Memoriam V” follows and is steeped in the sounds of nature, but also ominous darkness, as Smith takes over recitation. “Claw and Feather” also starts with lushly picked acoustic guitar that is coupled with a sense of dread from the synth and strings. The song builds slowly, with each of them having a turn at vocals, with Smith taking the song to its conclusion. “Memoriam VI” is the longest of these tracks, clocking in at 6:43, and it opens with an angelic blanket of keys, Smith whispering, then warbling as if trying to come to terms with something beyond him, and darkness envelops everything, leaving you with a feeling of such little hope. Closer “Reveal” is the one that reminds me most of a Worm Ouroboros track, but surely that’s just by chance. Guitar lines slowly fall like sheets of rain, while Smith sings over Way’s whispers. Then, as they are wont to do, they switch that up, with Way reaching deep into the void, autoharp making things emotionally frigid, and strings churning. The song plays out like a funeral hymn in a dreamstate ceremony, with dreary melodies, sequences that seem detached from real life, and Way sensing, “My joy and grief are hollow.” It’s an emotionally crushing end to a record that can drive a stake in your heart and leave you wailing.

Barren Harvest prove that musical heaviness is not required to offer up one of the darkest statements so far in 2014. This is a haunting collection, one that could keep you awake at night seeing spirits dancing in pain on your walls. You likely won’t even be ready to see such apparitions because the beauty of this music has arrested your senses. This collaboration of Way and Smith isn’t just fruitful, it’s otherworldly. We won’t have many more dark, cold nights left in the States, but if you find yourself upon one, take the chance to turn down the lights and spend the stretch with Barren Harvest. You might find your own darkness transformed.

For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/BarrenHarvest

To buy the album, go here: http://www.handmadebirds.com/store/

For more on the label, go here: http://handmadebirds.com/

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