HEALTH live in Richmond: The goth metamorphosis is complete

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HEALTH live - Richmond

Between spring 2015 and fall 2016, I ran a goth night in San Diego with my wife called St. Vitus Dance Party, with the humble intent of providing an alternative to the more ’80s-centric clubs that stuck—understandably and justifiably—to the classics. At the time, newer bands such as Cold Cave, The Soft Moon and Zola Jesus—and most of the Sacred Bones Records roster—were breathing new life into a darkwave aesthetic, which excited me just as much as hearing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” a few drinks in. We didn’t exactly ignore the classics, ourselves—we named the event after a Bauhaus song, after all.

Casting a wider net often worked in our favor, but the crowd reaction was sometimes unpredictable; I never would have expected The Knife’s “Full of Fire” to be the hit it turned out to be among our clientele. I also didn’t expect HEALTH‘s “Die Slow” to be so divisive, prompting one person to ask, with more than a little derision in their voice, “Is this a hipster bar?” (Both songs appeared in our history of industrial, for what that’s worth.) In fairness, HEALTH in early 2015 hadn’t yet made the transition from being Boredoms-inspired noiseniks to a full-fledged industrial rock band, but that song signaled that a change was imminent, even inevitable. Its strobing synths, heavy disco thump and ascendant chorus provided a template for danceably heavy darkwave anthems to come, their transformation made more or less complete later that very year with the release of Death Magic. I’d like to think I can be forgiven for jumping the gun a bit.

HEALTH didn’t play “Die Slow” at their show at Richmond’s The National on March 13—after being one of the most-played songs in their repertoire, the group seems to be giving it some much-needed air. But their career-spanning set of punishing noise-rock anthems, industrial-metal crunch and synth-laden goth-pop all flows from the same source. Throughout their set I often found myself reminded of groups such as Ministry or Nine Inch Nails (with whom HEALTH have collaborated), and as I scanned the crowd, clad mostly in black, it seemed clear as obsidian to me: HEALTH were no longer merely goth adjacent, but the genuine article.

Acknowledging this requires understanding how much of the band’s online persona contradicts such notions. Their social media presence is relentlessly jokey, rife with absurd memes and a recurring tradition of posting “Feliz Jueves” on Thursdays with a screenshot of Asuka from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. The tradition has evolved over time to include everything from clips from The Crow (goth) to bassist John Famiglietti in cosplay (decidedly less goth), and their merch just as often reflects their sense of humor.

Onstage, however, HEALTH command a stark and punishing presence, pairing danceably crushing rhythms with heavy metal guitars in an overall production that fully amplifies the cacophonous promise of their earlier recordings. However much they’ve meme-ified their online presence, onstage they’re a sleek but imposing machine, delivering a little over an hour of industrial menace and synth-pop pulse with a minimum of interruption. Before playing their final song, vocalist Jake Duzsik even warned the audience that an encore wasn’t happening, not because they didn’t earn it or that they like other cities better, but simply because they don’t do encores. It’s an admirably focused approach: Get in, make a seductively menacing ruckus, and get out. Only their intro music—”A Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” aka the theme from Neon Genesis Evangelion—seemed to nod to the lighter side of their split persona. Feliz Miercoles.

The group’s new album RAT WARS, released at the end of 2023, lends itself to a climactic live show—a statement I feel comfortable saying after having seen the band at nearly every stage of their evolution thus far, including a SXSW show in 2008 shortly after the release of their decidedly more chaotic debut. These songs are bigger, more powerful, but also cut a more compelling figure, notable not merely for their gothic atmosphere or apocalyptic moods, but for simply being some of their best songs to date: the leather-and-chains EBM of “Hateful,” the melancholy gloom of “Demigods,” the KMFDM-ification of “DSM-V.” But paired with Duzsik’s understated and melodic vocals, a sharp contrast to the screams and chants of many of industrial’s early frontmen, the songs take on a level of nuance that the chug and shred of power chords might initially seem to obscure.

Remarkably, the group seemed to mostly leave their hits by the wayside, trimming not only “Die Slow” but likewise “Crimewave,” most of Vol. 4: Slaves of Fear, and even some of their recent singles like “Children of Sorrow.” But those that did make it into the set, like 2015’s “Stonefist,” offered a reminder of HEALTH’s pop-friendly songwriting prowess, even in the context of an aesthetic that leans toward the aggressive and austere. But then again, what’s a great goth show without all three of these elements?

In casual discussions with other listeners, there’s sometimes a line drawn between the era in which HEALTH were a quartet and their transition to a trio, following the departure of Jupiter Keyes in 2015. But where that early era of the band positioned them as a group more aligned with the experimental tendencies of Liars and Fuck Buttons, even as early as 2009, with that year’s In Color, they showcased a penchant for something more seductive than sheer cacophony. Perhaps not all of their early adopters have been on board through each transition, but as both songwriters and as a live band, they’ve evolved in only positive ways, providing a show that’s at once hedonistically thrilling and sonically intense. And the sizes of the venues they’re playing now seems to suggest it was a worthwhile path.

A couple months ago, my wife and I paid a visit to our local goth club for a night of Siouxsie, Sisters of Mercy and The Cure, when I noticed another patron in a shirt with a familiar slogan: “Sad Music for Horny People.” That knowing sense of self-deprecating humor is instantly recognizable upon first sight. The metamorphosis is complete.

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