House of Harm
AVANT! Records

The contrast between melodic post-punk act House of Harm’s excellent 2020 debut LP Vicious Pastimes and this year’s sophomore effort Playground is subtle but measurable. Where the former album was brimming with a gloomy exuberance that allowed even its darkest moments to float, the latter album has a weightier feel. While just as cleanly composed and recorded as its predecessor, the album finds the Boston based trio’s buoyancy tempered by a moody energy that pervades even its most hooky moments.

The results of that somewhat intangible change are that there’s far less of the pure, elated thrills that those familiar with the band might be anticipating, with delayed gratification in favour of more ambitious arrangements and ideas. Take for example “Roseglass”, a song with an excellent chorus and some very tasteful bass and drum programming holding its big washes of synth together; it could have been whittled down to a very succinct bit of goth-pop, but House of Harm take their time teasing it out with breakdowns, layers of effects and dynamic changes. That trade-off of pop appeal for more indirect payoffs marks many of the record’s biggest moments, with cuts like “Endlessly” and “To Last” taking the urgency and allure of their melodies and putting them in service of plaintive, understated choruses for a slow-drip rather than a torrent of emotional release.

How any individual listener takes to that particular shift in House of Harm’s priorities will largely depend on how willing they are to engage with the songs on their own terms, but it’s worth noting that there are numbers where the band still bring the big feelings. Opener “Before the Line” comes out of the gate with the dramatics already cranked up and somehow manages to find another gear to shift up into when its desperate and doomed chorus kicks in, vocalist Michael Rocheford belting out a message of restless regret that hits home with unusual power. Conversely the strummy opening verse of “Two Kinds” flows naturally into a grandiose field of big synth hooks and emotive pads, a lovely journey accented and matched by Rocheford, who modulates from strident to a sincere melancholy as required.

Playground is on its surface the classic ambitious second LP, longing to branch out from what established the band that made it, sometimes at the expense of immediacy. Sitting with the record allows it to reveal more of its character, and for its less obvious rewards to come into focus. House of Harm still have their knack for a tune, but its how they approach delivering it that makes all the difference.

Buy it.