Barren Harvest: Subtle Cruelties

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Barren Harvest: Subtle Cruelties
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Barren Harvest: Subtle Cruelties
Ambience, Dark Folk
Handmade Birds Records
March 25th, 2014
Release length: 48:10
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Barren Harvest is a two-piece project based out of Portland, Oregon. It’s a collaboration between Lenny Smith and Jessica Way, also known as Atriarch and Worm Ouroboros respectively. No this is not the Black Metal and Punk group that recently formed in North America, but rather the “Dark Folk” outfit that signed to Handmade Birds Records. The group formed back in 2010, and a year later issued their first demo. In the time following, the group recorded some additional EPs, as well as their debut full-length album, Subtle Cruelties. With plenty of praise abound for this duo, is this first effort all just hype, or is this really a truly emotional and cerebral rollercoaster from start to finish?

Yes and no. First of all, Barren Harvest is not what you think when you hear the term Doom Metal in any aspect. This is a truly minimalistic recording full of echoing vast emptiness as far as the production quality goes. It does capture a great sadness in nearly every track that exists, making the title Subtle Cruelties absolutely spot on, telling you exactly what you are in for. Most of the time it’s held low notes from a keyboard to fill the background and give a depressing or ominous vibe with simple acoustic guitars to give it a somber sensation, only really picking up musically during the chorus of a song. “The Bleeding” is the perfect example, being one held low note and a few chords from the guitar behind Jessica’s enchanted clean singing, only changing up when Lenny’s flat, lower vocals kick in for the chorus.

And that right there becomes one of the biggest problems for this album. While the music does effectively convey sadness, the vocals simply don’t. Picture a depressing scene from an eighties fantasy film set in the medieval days, perhaps at a funeral or a flashback of someone remembering one of the characters and breaking into tears silently as the score becomes the only audio available. Any of the full-length songs here could easily be the soundtrack necessary to give those clips a tear jerking reaction. But when the music is at it’s most minimal, such as the aforementioned “The Bleeding,” that five minutes becomes painful to sit through, especially with the singing. While Jessica sounds somewhat majestic in some songs, there’s no emotion most of the time, which really kills the impact.

Thankfully that’s not always the case. Some performances really do hit you hard emotionally from every angle. “Memoriam II” finds Jessica putting a little more passion in her singing, and the additional echo makes it haunting, as if stuck in some kind of memory you simply cannot escape. Even dialogue in “Memoriam I” and “Memoriam IV” sounds like something torn from a J.R.R. Tolkien story or film based on his works. Sadly the only other track that comes remotely close to “Memorian II” is “Claw and Feather.” There’s a little bit of emotion to Jessica’s singing here, and they are largely limited. Lenny’s vocals are more tolerable, as they are done in more of a chanting manner with additional range, hitting notes that sound more like throat singing than just lifeless, boring low notes.

“Memoriam VI” is the most impressive of the eleven tracks though. There’s a little more complexity (a word that is used loosely in regards to this group) to the keyboards, and the guitar is largely left out or buried in the background. There are some whimsical notes that appear later on, as if fairies playing or to coincide with drops of water towards the very end. Jessica’s singing is low once more, but again there is some passion in what she presents, while Lenny is largely restricted once more, which ends up a good thing and allows what little time he has to use put the limited range to good, short use. He does commit more to “Reveal,” but for the most part it’s buried in the mix due to how distant it sounds against the rich majestic landscapes carried from “Memoriam VI.” Jessica’s performance also finds different layers at work, showcasing some genuine emotion to echoed with an effect that makes it seem like a voice travelling in the wind from afar.

While those are good, the last two songs are the only truly impressive ones and, sadly, there’s a lot worse to contend with. Lenny’s vocals on “Heaven’s Age” sound as though he is trying to push some kind of operatic approach into the mix, but the performance itself is just incredibly bland. Jessica puts a little more effort into her vocals, but again there’s just no emotion, just a nasal output that sounds off key. But the worst is when they sing together for the chorus, as the two just do not mix at all. Maybe if Jessica had the same passion as on even “Memoriam II” for this one, it wouldn’t sound as bad. Even if the keyboards or guitars picked up a little more would be helpful, as it would mask that clashing tone in each voice a little. But then there’s “Coil Uncoil” which shows even less range from Lenny, coming off as a purely amateurish attempt that sounds like he’s reading from a lyric sheet and auditioning to be the new vocalist of Skip Skiffington and The Elite.

Subtle Cruelties is an accurate title, but it can be perceived in more than one way. When the duo of Barren Harvest actually convey the right amount of passion in the vocals to match the depressing emotion of the often incredibly minimal music, it really is impressive. Sadly that only genuinely describes “Memoriam VI” and “Reveal.” While there are a few more okay song, they just lack that similar impact. And then you get songs like “Coil Uncoil” that makes that subtle aspect like some cruel form of torture. It’s unbelievable how incredibly boring and lifeless some of the songs can be, and even the vocals seem to just be going with the flow, obviously uninspired by the music they created. If you’re interested in checking this album out, do yourself a favor and sample it first. Subtle Cruelties is an incredibly boring, lifeless composition that will leave you regretting spending all but about seventeen minutes of your life on it.

01. The Bleeding – 5:17
02. Memoriam I – 1:00
03. Memorian II – 5:01
04. Memoriam III – 0:10
05. Heavens Age – 6:39
06. Memoriam IV – 0:10
07. Coil Uncoil – 5:13
08. Memoriam V – 1:32
09. Claw and Feather – 6:00
10. Memoriam VI – 6:58
11. Reveal – 10:12
Initial Pressing Score: 2/10

Barren Harvest
Barren Harvest

Digital review copy of this release provided by Handmade Birds Records.