For Fans Of
HEALTH can be a hard band to like sometimes, and that’s not just damning with fine praise. Their last album, 2015’s ‘Death Magic’, was a stellar combination of noisy, industrial-tinged dance rock that I still listen to from time to time. While I can admit it’s also a rather hit or miss album, there are more hits, and they hit damned hard. Despite losing key songwriter Jupiter Keyes just before/between ‘Death Magic’ and their latest album, ‘Vol. 4:: Slaves of Fear’, HEALTH have made an LP that mostly adheres to the style of their previous work, whilst replicating how hit or miss that album can be. (The ‘misses’ aren’t all that bad, truth be told.) However, just like ‘Death Magic‘, there are many more hits here. Thank god! It’s also a darker, more low-key yet often more methodical record too, so don’t expect songs like ‘L.A. Looks‘ and ‘Life‘ here, folks.
In the lead-up to this new album, I was stoked to see HEALTH collaborating with various other artists. They made the grim yet melodic ‘Mass Grave’ with Soccer Mommy and Purity Ring’s Corin Roddick; they crafted the pulsating 80’s banger of ‘Body/Prison’ with the one and only Perturbator; and the rawer, messier sounds of ‘Innocence’ with Youth Code (my least favourite of the three collabs, personally.) Even though Youth Code sound like nails on a chalkboard to me, except the chalkboard is in the movie Battle Royale and I’m actually getting stabbed to death, it was still good to see HEALTH mix up their sound and bring different artists into the mix. I’d love to see some similar guest features used on another release of theirs, especially from artists like Perturbator or producers such as SOPHIE, to see where these different view-points could push HEALTH’s music in. Because with how similar this album is to ‘Death Magic’ at times, I feel like I need to see a slightly different direction from HEALTH to maintain my interest in them moving forward.
In case you didn’t assume this already, if you’ve heard ‘Death Magic’, then you know what you’re getting into with ‘Vol. 4:: Slaves of Fear’. The album is full of swelling, rhythmic synths that are as hi-fi as they are noisy, and plenty of hard-hitting instrumentals that catch you somewhere between dancing and moshing. Particularly songs like the low drop of ‘Feel Nothing’, which is extremely reminiscent of ‘Stonefist’ sometimes. There’s also higher use of guitars here (or at least, synths that sound like guitars), like on the tight, aggressively muted notes on ‘Black Static‘.
As you may expect, percussionist BJ Miller continues to be an absolute beast of a drummer, edging somewhere between rhythm and chaos with nearly every song, as he drives these songs onward. Jake Duzsik’s vocals don’t so much penetrate your mind as they do wash over you in these ethereal, almost-atonal waves of reverb and emotion, sounding just as cold and as distant as the mechanical industrial beats that underscore his parts. It’s all pretty miserable stuff, honestly, but that’s the point. Like much of HEALTH’s work before, everything sounds so drugged-up, so despondent, yet so immensely powerful at the same time. It’s like a well-produced cinematic score meshed with an underground, sad-as-fuck rave party. And time hasn’t withered that particular mood of the band’s quality songwriting.
It’s not all crushing electronics and pounding drums, however. I was actually kind of stunned when I first heard the intro to the opening song ‘Psychonaut’, which features a clean, Eastern-sounding guitar motif swaying back and forth. Well, right before BJ’s punk rock drumming erupts the song into forward motion, anyway. The same also goes with the album’s final song, ‘Decimation’, which completes the bookend by centring around an acoustic guitar figure, one of a few new choices for HEALTH that seems quite radical for them and their sound. But I’m glad to see it happen, honestly.
And of course, not every song is a total noise-synth banger: you have to have a change of pace somewhere on albums like this so that they can hit hard dynamically. So, the song ‘NC-17’ (yes, as in that weird U.S. film rating) is far calmer, but still a little eerie and creepy little piece. It almost sounds like a song for a movie soundtrack, in a way, with Duzsik’s vocals taking centre stage while noisy electronics swelling and moving off in the background. Over the time I’ve listened to this record, this number has since grown to become one of my favourite tracks, and its comparative subtlety is the main reason for that.
‘Slaves of Fear’ has my favourite instrumentals of the whole album, featuring the most “normal” song structure too. It starts out with a groovy, delayed bass riff that sounds extremely Joy Division-esque and actually takes time to gradually build to peaks and valleys of excitement over the course of the whole song. Which is another rare touch for HEALTH, who are often used to pummelling you into submission with rhythmic walloping and layers upon layers of noise, measure after measure. It kinda sounds like what would happen if HEALTH had to write a New Order song, but as an original, not that admittedly cool cover of ‘Blue Monday’ that they did for the Atomic Blonde soundtrack. (Bad-ass film, by the way).
As for this album’s lyrics, and to be blunt, I don’t really like them. A solid amount of the lyrical content makes for a typical critique of the current overwhelming societal malaise that’s so common nowadays. I suppose one thing that’s commendable about this theme is that the despondent and detached lyricism, coupled with Jake’s reverb-laden vocals, match the music perfectly. Unfortunately though, the lyrics aren’t quite as deep as the band think they are, or as I personally think they should be for a HEALTH record. They come off sounding like surface-level nihilism and the kind of depressed shit that edgy 14-year-olds think are deep. Here’s one example, the first few lines from the title track: “Slaves of fear/From the moment we’re born/Yeah, we want to feel love/Or we want to be numb”. Now, you and I both know those lyrics could easily be a copypasta originally written unironically by a guy with The Joker as his profile picture. It’s a good thing the song itself is such an absolute tune, because otherwise it’d be one of my least favourite songs on the album, but the fantastic musical scores around these lyrics save it.
The same can be said for ‘Feel Nothing’, and the pounding, cut-up tones of ‘The Message’. The overall idea of both tracks is that getting old is lame, so you might as well live in a kind of hedonistic numbness, because why bother? Why care about the end of the world when you didn’t care before you were born? That’s the gist of the whole record. The best thing I can compare these songs to in tone, because I’m that pretentious, is Bret Easton Ellis’ first novel Less Than Zero. (Which was one my favourite books for a long time). The novel aims a very similar overall focus on youthful hedonistic nihilism, but it actually goes into detail about where that destructive nihilism leads, and the grotesque actions that it tries to justify. Now, even despite being an album rather than a novel, I’m not saying that HEALTH are justifying kidnapping and selling your friends into prostitution (hey, I never said Less Than Zero was a subtle or morally right book), but I am pointing out how the kind of surface-level criticisms that ‘Vol 4:: Slaves of Fear’ offers up are basic business in terms of defeated lyrical content about the pointlessness of life.
Honestly, I feel it’s a shame to end this review on such a negative note, because as I said above, I do quite like this album. (Remember: 7/10 isn’t a bad score.) Even though the group’s songwriting formula is beginning to show now, for this album at least, it’s still a pretty good formula that gets me pumped up every time I listen to it. No matter how I try to write about it or intellectualise it in any way, this shit still just feels good to listen to. And maybe that’s all that matters.
Just like ‘Death Magic’ before it, HEALTH have managed to capture and bottle the despondency and epidemic-level depression of our time pretty accurately with the sounds and themes of ‘Vol 4 :: Slaves Of Fear’. If, like me, you’ve ever found yourself standing on a dance floor at 2 am wondering why you so badly want to die, HEALTH, and their new album, is absolutely for you. Cause it’s for me, too, honestly.
- Feel Nothing
- God Botherer
- Black Static
- Loss Deluxe
- The Message
- Rat Wars
- Strange Days (1999)
- Wrong Bar
- Slaves Of Fear
‘Vol 4 :: Slaves Of Fear’ is out now.