HEALTH Rat Wars review

HEALTH once said that Shadow the Hedgehog would listen to their music. On Thursdays, they post memes of Asuka Langley Soryu from Neon Genesis Evangelion partying in Mexico. If you listened to them enough this year that they were one of your top artists on Spotify, you’d receive a video from bassist Johnny Famiglietti thanking you in Shadowheart from Baldur’s Gate 3 cosplay. Based on all this and their work on the Max Payne 3 and Cyberpunk 2077 soundtracks, one could assume their music would be equally as tapped into internet culture and humor, theoretically resembling a group like 100 gecs. However, listening to the noise rock-meets-EBM group is modern hell. It’s blunt, loud, synthetic, and pessimistic. There are no words spared or anything beautiful left alive. Vocalist Jake Duzsik apathetically informs you that you’ll die, that he’ll die, or that we all die. HEALTH’s music engages both the corporeal and the hedonistic. It would be utter deflating were it not powered by nuclear reactors. 

One could assume that HEALTH are merely self-aware of their music’s edge and conclude that that’s the joke. In reality, that’s just one joke. HEALTH’s social media presence and music go hand in hand, each taking humor and nihilism to extreme conclusions as coping mechanisms for today’s civil plights. Sympathy and empathy are lost on both ends because they’ve been serrated by modern ennui of doomscrolling, financial instability, housing crises, healthcare issues, and so on. HEALTH’s engagement with meme culture and their suffocatingly moody music represent the only ways individuals can often reckon with their conditions. So, while you don’t need to follow their music or social media to enjoy either, having a cursory understanding of them informs you that HEALTH are multifaceted and multimedia. Wisely, they don’t mix their indulgences. As such, their humor remains unfiltered and their music can be as dire as necessary. It doesn’t matter that their lyrics are on the nose—it’s club-informed, after all, and who wants to think in the club?

Nonetheless, RAT WARS is HEALTH’s most thoughtfully composed album, with tracks of surprising and varied structures, transitions and interlude that push the pace rather than deter it, and a better realization of their influences. The pop hooks are poppier, and the metal influences come to the forefront. Based on all this, RAT WARS is their best album, full stop. The past four years have been incredibly busy and fruitful for the Los Angeles trio as they released two collaborative albums, a remix record, and contributed to the Cyberpunk 2077 and Dark Nights: Death Metal soundtracks. They rubbed shoulders with plenty of artists both within and outside of their typical wheelhouse. Most, if not all, positively affected their development. Clearly, HEALTH weren’t using this time to just make friends; they took notes. As a result, RAT WARS is their most fully formed album, filling many of the cracks in their shell that’d gone unnoticed prior. 

The record is as much of a singular HEALTH statement as it is evidence that they are actively engaging with their collaborators. Don’t let the sexy Evangelion cosplay misguide you—HEALTH are tuned in. “CHILDREN OF SORROW” is their heaviest solo track and wouldn’t have been possible had they not previously worked alongside Lamb of God on DISCO 4 :: PART II (though it’s worth noting that Willie Adler provides the main riff). “HATEFUL” uses throat-shedding vocals similar to those Street Sects provided on last year’s “THE JOY OF SECT.” Hell, they even harvested some of The Neighborhood’s pop sensibilities and integrated them into “ASHAMED.” Importantly, these are all improvements upon HEALTH’s core foundations, acting like new perks in an already heavily invested skill tree in an RPG rather than swapping weapons late in the game.

To talk about massive improvements on RAT WARS facilitates discussing its structure. It claims the mantle of HEALTH’s best-paced album by a landslide. HEALTH have rarely deviated from conventional song structures throughout their career, a trait which has kept their music vibrant. They remain adherent to these structures but augment RAT WARS’s flow by incorporating interludes that extend certain tracks and moods without distressing the pop-oriented overtones. Though pivotal, there are only two of them; “(OF ALL ELSE)” and “(OF BEING BORN),” the latter of which is uncharacteristically beautiful, integrating acoustic guitars into a formless ambient entity. These interludes also break up RAT WARS’s spandex-tight pacing in which tracks bully their way into one another. Consider how two of the most adrenaline-surging cuts “CHILDREN OF SORROW” and “SICKO” steamroll their way into one another without losing an inch of momentum. For another example, “FUTURE OF HELL” plunges you into a gabber hellscape with only a second of respite after “DEMIGODS” concludes. 

The singles rollout has been one of the record’s most promising aspects. Still, HEALTH’s ultimate trick was their insistence on releasing “DEMIGODS” last, a bold gesture considering that it’s the strongest. It’s dreadful and pessimistic but caked in a nigh-cinematic coat. While the trio have been dramatic, they’ve never been as grandiose as they are on “DEMIGODS.” Industrial metal riffs and noise rock vocals announce that the group are operating on a higher level on RAT WARS before unexpectedly transitioning into a hidden crescendo that they have never attempted before. It’s as if they’ve uncorked a power reserve they didn’t once possess.

While they’ve never been a band that placed an emphasis on deep insights, RAT WARS shows HEALTH at its most comfortable—and as a result, adventurous—with the reality that they are edgy and frank. “SICKO” gloriously asserts this as they pair a Godlfesh sample from “Like Rats,” itself pulverizing and indifferent, with Duzsik cooing that he doesn’t need nor want love. It’s a single example of reveling in the futility of fighting. If their lyrics are disillusioned and their online content is absurd, then their music is the middle ground emotional experience between the two—the state of nirvana in which one accepts the futility of man in the face of death and laughs, cheers, and dances. It’s a sentiment HEALTH have long chased, but they’ve only now captured so perfectly by taking the time to enjoy that feeling. It succinctly answers a question HEALTH themselves posed on “FLESH WORLD (UK)”; we die, so what? 

Label: Loma Vista

Year: 2023

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