Harmony Woods Process Their Trauma with 'GRACEFUL RAGE'
Published Mar 17, 2021In the midst of a society-wide reckoning over the insidious dangers of casual misogyny and toxic masculinity, Harmony Woods have released a stunning album that intimately and poignantly encapsulates many of the abusive and manipulative behaviours that have prompted women to speak up and say that enough is enough. Led by singer-songwriter Sofia Verbilla, the Philadelphia band's third record, GRACEFUL RAGE, is an impressive musical achievement built around a tangled account of the messy aftermath of a toxic relationship. In eight songs of resonant and emotionally potent indie rock, Verbilla and her group have assembled one of the most self-assured and consequential records of their scene.
Harmony Woods find themselves somewhere between the knotty indie-rock of Hop Along and Tigers Jaw, the emotive alt-folk of Lucy Dacus and Laura Stevenson, and the rousing, throat-shredding emo-punk of the Hotelier. With breakout act Bartees Strange in the producer's chair, the band's gritty guitars and pounding rhythms give way to airy, atmospheric sections with well-placed touches of cello, piano and trumpet — a dynamic sound that reflects the lyrical shifts between external ferocity and internal peace. It's a big step up for the band compared to their 2019 album, Make Yourself at Home, which found Verbilla similarly trying to cope with toxicity and trauma but wasn't quite musically gripping enough to give her words their full power. Here, Verbilla returns to confront the complicated mix of guilt, shame and anger that remains; the songwriting is cuttingly honest and unforgiving, but even more importantly, the music rises to meet that intensity.
When Verbilla's voice soars at the 90-second mark of "Good Luck Rd.," that's when the album first opens up to reveal itself as something special. The song's acoustic guitar and pounding toms bring to mind the ruminative sounds of Big Thief, and as it gathers more and more steam, we hear a band that intends to make a convincing artistic statement. "You may not realize it yet, but I wish you the best," Verbilla sings. "Yeah, everything's fucked… Good luck."
While GRACEFUL RAGE doesn't speak directly to gender-based violence, it alludes to a pattern of harmful behaviours that make Verbilla and other women the subjects of manipulation, objectification and long-term emotional damage. Through heartbreaking vignettes, sharply pointed questions and searing indictments, Verbilla is vengeful yet sympathetic, often expressing cold contempt and reluctant compassion in the same breath. "I should be mad at you for what you did / I'm mostly sad for you instead / But if you ever lay a finger on another girl again / You'll be dead to me / You make it so easy," she sings on "Easy," a huge, towering song that makes dull pain and lasting resentment sound utterly triumphant.
"You're screaming from an empty room / What will you do when no one's left to yell back at you?" she asks in "Holding You to You," a song built on dark, chugging power chords as she describes a perpetrator of entitlement, blame and gaslighting. The sneering pop-punk of "God's Gift to Women" is a series of sarcastic barbs that form a portrait of a narcissistic, faux-feminist, pseudointellectual fuckboy, while the upbeat rock and lively trumpets of "Rittenhouse" belie the seriousness of confronting a former partner about an unplanned pregnancy.
Verbilla won't give in to fully hating the person or people who have wronged her; instead, she lets the hatred melt into pity and saves that energy for herself. "I'll keep my mouth shut, baby / Save it for the ones who love me," she muses on the title track. And finally, "You will never hurt me again," she sings to the rafters at the colossal finale of "I Can't," a power ballad that feels like a throwback to the days of Avril Lavigne and Goo Goo Dolls. Head held high, GRACEFUL RAGE is confident and tenacious. Throughout the record, Verbilla's voice is bright, clear and steady, whether she's contemplating quietly or crying out with all the air in her lungs. So much of Harmony Woods' strength derives from their willingness to do both — to process the trauma of the past and then let it out in a bloody torrent. Having the maturity to hold something back until those moments of all-out emotional purging makes just about every song on GRACEFUL RAGE its own journey toward absolution. (Skeletal Lightning)