Darkness comes in many forms. A band doesn’t necessarily have to scream about Satan or pile on the distortion in order to take listeners to pitch-black places. Subtle Cruelties, the debut album from West Coast duo Barren Harvest, is an exquisite example of this. A collaboration between Jessica Way of Worm Ouroboros and Atriarch’s Lenny Smith, Barren Harvest’s sound is rooted in the subtle tones and textures of ambient and neofolk, yet somehow manages to be darker and more sorrowful than even the most depressive of black metal bands.
Using acoustic guitars, synths and strings, Smith and Way craft brooding soundscapes that are sparse and minimal yet deeply affecting. There is an air of loss and longing that hangs over the entirety of the recording, tugging at your heartstrings and forcing you to feel every ounce of despondence the two musicians poured into these songs. Yet for as palpable as these emotions are, there is also beauty to be found here; to be sure, Subtle Cruelties is hauntingly delicate and ethereal.
Barren Harvest paint exclusively in a sonic palette of blacks and grays, yet the album never drags thanks to Smith and Way’s nuanced approach. The arrangements may be stripped-down, but there’s much more at work here than your typical acoustic/folk recording; the way in which the instruments are layered has a strangely hypnotic effect, pulling you ever deeper into Subtle Cruelties‘ almost unbearably somber confines. Smith and Way’s forlorn vision is one that stays with you, its spectral whispers swimming in your mind long after the album is over.
Subtle Cruelties is a very special album that will likely appeal to fans of everything from neofolk to darkwave and many points in-between. It’s the perfect piece of music to listen to with the lights off as you lie back and reflect on the many tragedies both great and small that we experience before we shuffle off this mortal coil. Here’s to hoping this collaboration lasts for a long time to come.