Not bad for a band that started in such a primal state.
The career trajectory of Los Angeles noise punks HEALTH has been anything but predictable. After 2007’s spartan, screeching HEALTH spawned the transformative remix album, DISCO, (spawning the Crystal Castles classic “Crimewave” remix), the band mutated. They returned a year after DISCO with Get Color, an album that decided to add those harsh synth elements in-house, as though the remixes turning out so well gave them permission to do something that had been part of the plan all along. With each album, edition of DISCO or video game soundtrack, they improve on their own formula, becoming a more cunning machine. Not bad for a band that started in such a primal state.
VOL. 4 :: SLAVES OF FEAR picks up where 2015’s Death Magic left off, with the group embracing industrial music wholeheartedly. Overblown drum samples, pummeling guitar shredding and trench-deep bass tones completely dominate this landscape. Whether or not their brand of noise has worn thin will determine your enjoyment of SLAVES OF FEAR, but fans who have reveled in watching the band lean into industrial will rejoice. Their metallic edge is sharpened, cunningly used to help balance their growing talents for song structures bordering on dark R&B. If you listen just right, you can almost imagine them producing next year’s biggest pop acts – which is by no means an insult.
SLAVES is the heaviest HEALTH have been yet, like Death Magic but more so, with yet more cunning use of samples used as tactical strike devices, pulling more from Merzbow and John Wiese than Pictureplane. You still get some songs that feel like a play for progressive dance clubs, like the sizzling “NC-17” or the Nine Inch Nails jocking “THE MESSAGE,” proving a legitimate case for playing spaces where they can turn a large room into a writhing den of steam heat. “LOSS DELUXE,” one of the more comparatively restrained songs, still delivers chopped-up beats and a gritty mood that should belong in a tense club scene in a show like “Killing Eve,” giving us a glimpse of how much range HEALTH really have. They even manage to hold themselves back at times, and use the menacing build of “SLAVES OF FEAR” to sink hooks into you, rather than just bludgeoning you – resulting in one of their best songs to date.
The dream-pop vocals are still intact, at times noticeably more prominent, one of the wisest decisions made here. Singer Jake Duzsik’s voice is always digitally altered, but on songs like “BLACK STATIC” and “LOSS DELUXE,” his cyborg croon is still strangely beautiful in these tracks, helping further blur their adherence to genre lines. This interplay is closer to an alternate reality in which Weeknd frontman Abel Tesfaye fully embraced the hedonistic hip-hop of House of Balloons. Elsewhere, on “STRANGE DAYS (1999),” he sounds downright beautiful, while closer “DECIMATION” scales its doom back just enough to thrust him wholly into the spotlight, resulting in the best vocal performance of the album. Their handle on how his voice is incorporated into the mix, and the dichotomy between it and the buzzsaw/sub-bass onslaught present in so much of their music is what keeps them from being the kind of knucklehead band they could have easily become by this point in their career.
What limits HEALTH this time is that, while it’s clear that they’re working on shifting their sound to experiment with new sounds, it doesn’t seem like they were brave enough to stray too far from the band they’ve become since Get Color. Even more restrained songs like “LOSS DELUXE,” “WRONG BAG” and “NC-17” feel like obvious turns for the band, as they test the limits of what they can do with their toolkit, but only with their toolkit. That said, SLAVES OF FEAR is still proof that HEALTH are still impressively adept at using those tools. Time will tell if they’re able to avoid stagnation on their next release, but for now, it’s wickedly fun to see how they tinker.