On the follow up to their 2015 album Death Magic, Los Angeles noise-rock experimentalists Health sound confident and composed. On Vol. 4 :: Slaves of Fear, they choose their moments of disharmony wisely, offsetting simple electronic melodies with blasts of cacophonous catharsis.
Health has always been a band with a unique sound. They combine slick, danceable electronic music with dissonant synth explosions and lightly auto-tuned vocals that float above each track. While the experimentation has been toned down on the last two records, the very core of Health’s music still sounds unlike anything else right now.
Despite their individual sound, the band has a few obvious contemporaries: the shape-shifting, experimental dance music of Liars, the austere and artificial pop music deconstructionism of the PC Music collective and a lot of recent heavy shoegaze bands, due to their mixture of ethereal vocals and thundering instrumentals.
Vol. 4 opens up with “Psychonaut,” a track that begins with a soft contemplative guitar before immediately giving way to shimmering synths and blown-out industrial drumming. It sounds like a warehouse rave celebrating the end of the world, and it’s up there with the band’s best.
Health doesn’t always operate with this level of aggression, though. Songs like “Black Static” and “NC-17” are more melodic. In particular, “NC-17” is an album highlight that uses rich textures to create something beautiful and menacing. Rather than exploding into noise, the track creates a vibe and lives in it for a moment.
There are some great lighter tracks on this album, but the melodic moments can sometimes feel like artifice. They feel like the perfunctory soft part of the band’s soft-loud dynamic. Health has stopped just short of sanding all of the edges off their sound, but in an effort to polish up their act, they’ve lost something along the way.
There’s an anthemic quality to tracks like “The Message” that falls short of the mark for me. Occasionally, the band sounds like they’re playing at something polished, but they end up with something devoid of teeth.
Health’s music always runs the risk of sounding sterile and sanitized, at least when it’s not offset by an appropriate amount of grime. It’s a tough balancing act, and the band succeeds at it most of the time, which makes it all the more jarring when they don’t.
Vol. 4 is still a louder record than Death Magic, at least in short bursts. The band is clearly branching out and trying to become more versatile but with mixed success. That being said, there are moments here that recall the thrilling “anything goes” genre-bending of their excellent self-titled debut.
Health’s latest is still a very good album despite some minor setbacks. I’ve always had a strong appreciation for the band’s ability to craft accessible noise rock, and they’ve become one of the heaviest bands in the world without ever relying on a strong guitar presence. Check it out for yourself when Vol. 4 is released on Feb. 8, 2019.
Cole Chretien / Culture Editor