Los Angeles-based musician Julian Sharwarko has swiftly carved out a commanding presence with his darkwave project, Harsh Symmetry. Sharwarko’s adeptness at bridging the gap between the past and present is palpable, as he seamlessly blends influences from genre titans such as Depeche Mode, The Cure, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, and Human League, while also incorporating elements from contemporary acts like Twin Tribes and Boy Harsher.
With that in mind, and the constant comparisons to his influences, the title of his latest opus, “Imitation,” indicates a reluctance to embrace one’s own power. This bears the question – is Harsh Symmetry an imitation…or an archetype? What happens if you do something so well that it feels both so new and familiar that you could swear it existed long before its manifestation? What occurs when an artist captures an essence so authentic that it feels eerily déjà vu, like the echo of an alternate past?
The change of scenery from his hometown of Sacramento has proven to be a breath of fresh air – and a creative wellspring – for Shawarko. “Moving to Los Angeles has changed my entire world,” he says. “I’ve managed to stay busy working, but I’ve been spending most of my time settling in, playing with new gear, and just trying to stay inspired.”
For his inaugural album, “Display Model,” Harsh Symmetry was signed by Fabrika Records, a label renowned for housing artists like She Past Away and more. The label quickly added Harsh Symmetry to their roster following the exceptional success of Schwarko’s debut single, “Mirror Twin.”
Reflecting on his first in-person encounter with the label’s founders (and members of Selofan), Joanna and Dim, during his recent European tour, Schwarko shares, “Joanna and Dim are such lovely and genuine people. It’s an honor to have their support in my work. Meeting them, after years of being a fan of their music, was a surreal experience.”
Harsh Symmetry’s second album, “Imitation,” spaninng the chasm of darkwave and synthpop, is a world-weary modern collection of songs warmed by the solid embrace of nostalgia. Astonishingly, the entire LP was entirely recorded and performed by Shawarko, in a remarkably quick turnaround from his last year’s critically acclaimed debut, 2022’s “Display Model.” Releasing a new album every year during the 1980s was par for the course with bands like The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees, as well as other highly prolific bands such as his labelmates Lebanon Hanover, but this level of artistic output is rarely matched today.
“A lot of the material was informed by isolation and struggling with the paradox of wanting to be original yet feeling like your entire identity is built on mimicry,” he admits. “The album was recorded as I was preparing to move out of the city I grew up in, I guess that kind of nudged me to think about what I’m doing more, and the place my work might have in the world.”
That mindset led to a pleasant surprise during his last tour, which he describes as a ‘really interesting and exciting experience.’ This year, Harsh Symmetry graced the stages of Wave Gotik Treffen and the Grey Scale Festival in Munich, to much audience acclaim, cementing the project’s status as an essential artist in the international darkwave scene.
“I can’t wrap my head around the idea of people so far away from home listening to my music. I’m endlessly appreciative,” Schwarko humbly remarks.
Stateside, Harsh Symmetry also performed in NYC at Synthicide and Substance in Los Angeles. The project is slated for a second appearance at Substance in LA, the Cold Waves Festival in Chicago, and will be supporting Twin Tribes for select dates this autumn.
Setting the stage for the new 9-song LP, “Imitation,” is the chilling resonance of the record’s “Intro” track. It is here the aural groundwork is laid with a short yet profound synth score that invokes memories of The Cure in their rawest beginnings, tinged with a lurking, deliberate darkness. It is as if Seventeen Seconds was used as the inspirational starting point for a John Carpenter horror film.
Next on the album is the lead single, “Glass Tears.” At first, it seems to fuse Darkwave and Synthpop in a manner reminiscent of Clan of Xymox and New Order. However, such comparisons soon disperse, as it uniquely guides listeners through a soundscape shimmering like an uncharted tundra, immersed in a spine-chilling, desolate atmosphere. Amidst the pulsating backdrop of staccato, motorik-inspired synths, Shawarko’s heart-wrenching vocals reverberate. A captivating dance beat lends a compelling rhythmic drive to this poignant lament, endowing it with an irresistibly dynamic pulse and enigmatic allure. Shawarko counts this track among his personal favorites to perform live.
“This song was the result of a lot of experimentation and revision,” says Shawarko. “My intention was to create a track that was ice cold. Sophisticated without losing musicality, and repetitive without overstaying its welcome.”
“Faint Disguise” harnesses the unabashed energy of German luminaries such as Neu! and Can, refracted through the experimental post-punk lens of Joy Division, particularly that of “She’s Lost Control.” Yet, it seamlessly incorporates a shimmering coldwave guitar line, akin to the early sounds of Indochine. Anchored by metallic synths and Shawarko’s resonant vibrato, the track exudes an atmospheric intensity and an uncanny aura. This imbues the song with an ethereal quality that is both earthbound and celestial, allowing it to project a potent experimental sound that harks back to the pioneering spirit of the 1980s 4AD label.
“Make Up Artist” presents a fascinating equilibrium, propelling forward with a lively tempo while simultaneously maintaining a reflective atmosphere. The track, penned by Peekay Lewis, evolved into a cherished collaboration and personal favorite for Sharwarko. He shares, “He had shown me his original demo of the track, and after I fell in love with the song, he suggested I should record a version and include it on the album.”
The track’s sound is reminiscent of The Cure’s early days, featuring dark tones and an introspective mood. The somber vocals interweave with frosty synth patterns, crafting a chilling, resonant soundscape. The robust percussion provides a rhythmic backbone, offering a danceable contrast to the introspective elements of the song. The distinctive use of a heavily processed acoustic drum kit, white noise, and FM synth patches sets this track apart from Shawarko’s other compositions, especially on this album.
“Open Your Heart” is a beautifully bizarre reinterpretation of one of Madonna’s most iconic mid-80s pop singles from her True Blue era. Another live favourite of Shawarko’s, it’s a deft and faithful rendition, albeit distorted through a mesmerizingly eerie lens that adds a layer of captivating peculiarity to this classic tune. The vocals emanate as though sung by a siren beneath the waves, drawing sailors towards an inescapable fate. This submerged quality of the sound creates a sense of distortion and surreal ambience.
“Madonna’s album True Blue shaped so much of my musical psyche,” he says. “Aside from it fitting on the album, I felt like I could do something original with it and possibly show it in a new context.”
“Scalpel” stands out with its vibrant metallic bassline, carrying echoes of Peter Hook and Anka Wolbert, which adds a profound depth and weight to the track. However, the song evolves and broadens through the guitars and vocals, adopting a psychedelic aura reminiscent of Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen or Julian Cope of the Teardrop Explodes. Cloaked in deep melancholy, “Scalpel” resonates with raw emotional undertones, further amplified by Shawarko’s disarmingly potent vocals.
“Crystal Smile” begins with a rhythmic introduction that echoes the atmospheric essence of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity,” not unlike the tributes paid by both Joy Division and OMD. As the song progresses, it transitions into a dreamy vocal performance, akin to a sonic buoy floating atop a distinctly 80s synth pad. Fans of that era will find a comforting nostalgia in its tones, evoking memories of Talk Talk. The minimalist percussion that accompanies the track creates a spacious auditory landscape, inviting listeners to pause, breathe, and reflect.
“Dressed in White” is a compelling hybrid track that blends the energetic bounce of darkwave with the vibrant undertones of New Wave, calling to mind the powerful resonance of Depeche Mode’s “Violator” era. The vocals, drenched in melancholy, flutter and shiver across the composition, weaving a palpable sense of yearning. Beneath this, a pulsating synthpop beat pulses. This blend of sorrow-laden vocals and an assertive, shadowy beat creates a compelling juxtaposition.
The album closes with its formidable title track, “Imitation,” a discordant piece that vibrates with an eclectic mix of city-pop elegance and a motorik beat inspired by krautrock. This combination crafts a dynamic sonic landscape where Shwarko’s voice resonates, echoing through the vast emptiness of a spectral warehouse or an abandoned industrial complex. The track is melodious yet unsettling, with a cinematic quality that is both eerie and captivating. The rhythm, with its jerky, mechanical allure, could have easily caught the attention of the late Richard H. Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire. This intriguing blend of elements culminates in a harmoniously discordant balance, perfectly complementing the spectral echoes of Shawarko’s vocals.
Harsh Symmetry’s second studio album, “Imitation,” is out now via Fabrika Records.
Pre-order the album on Vinyl here and listen to it via Spotify below:
Harsh Symmetry Live:
- September 22: Chicago, IL, US – Cold Waves XI
- September 23: Carbondale, IL, US – Hangar 9 *
- September 24: Indianapolis, IN, US – Hi-Fi *
- September 25: Ann Arbor, MI, US – Blind Pig *
- September 26: Columbus, OH, US – Rumba Cafe *
- September 27: Philadelphia, PA, US – Underground Arts *
- September 28: Boston, MA, US – Middle East Downstairs *^
- September 29: Brooklyn, NY, US – Brooklyn Made *#
- September 30: Washington, DC, US – Black Cat *
- November 4: Los Angeles, CA, US – Globe Theatre
- November 14: Sacramento, CA, US – The Starlet Room
* With Twin Tribes
^ With Nuovo Testamento
# With Bootblacks
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