Sometimes it’s good to just lay in it and wallow. Our times are, to understate things, a bit fraught and it seems sometimes like the only proper or allowed response is to be pathologically happy and hopeful. We aren’t allowed to express terror or shame or rage; these things are anathema to folk who are just trying to make it. But, on some level, we know it is wrong. The rich do not seem any less vampiric or evil than they did yesterday, or a year ago, or five years, or more. The climate is no cooler; in fact, armageddon seems to be knocking at our door. And the political landscape of the planet continues to slide toward fascism and brutality. It feels like the worst parts of the ’70s and ’80s repeating themselves, less the beautiful grimy nihilism of noir and cyberpunk and more the mundane and miserable nihilism of something like Death Wish, which visually looked as shitty as it was supposed to feel.
HEALTH do not make happy music. Their long-running theme, that of the powerlessness of the living to abate the forces of death and of the hedonistic impulse that arises when faced with that ultimate destroyer, remains intact. Their sonic approach, a mixture of goth rock, heavy metal, noise and industrial over a body of dance music as perfected on 2015’s Death Magic, remains intact on their fourth album, VOL. 4 :: SLAVES OF FEAR. They are oddly high-energy for the subject matter, or at least odd if you imagine the dourness of gothic music to be about lugubrious dragging limbs and slow drawls. But HEALTH are sincere with their call to hedonism: We’re fucked, and we’re all dying, so there’s no point avoiding pleasure for some tomorrow.
This kind of tenor can quickly turn edgy and lame if left uninflected. They are wise to retain a sense of glowering discomfort, little lyric phrases or an overall dark palette to their songwriting that betrays the fact that they aren’t quite so happy to feel the way they do. The hedonism shown on these songs is not one of joy but of harnessed, honest terror. We live in terrifying times, and music that presumes this is not the case to preserve a fragile sense of safety feels at times like coddling and at others like denial.
HEALTH are in many ways a replication of the angst and fire of early Nine Inch Nails, their same sense of pop songcraft wrapped up in an industrial/metal palette. It is a necessary fire. This is a sound the group have been mining for four studio albums, combining raw noisy bursts of electronic noise with distorted drum machines and, oddly, an almost shoegazing vocal aesthetic. That dollop of sweetness offers a human edge to an otherwise mechanical and harsh industrial goth-pop, offering a line to some interior aspect beyond the outer shell of teenage hormonal rage. It is hard not to imagine HEALTH as a group emerging from an alternate reality where The Horrors became heavier rather than softer with time, while retaining the same level of gloss; both mine similar post-goth space, while one is decidedly more paisley while the other is more industrialized. They cover the same kind of dissociative gothic psychedelia, however, with HEALTH erring more on the side of the post-industrial capitalist hellscape of our fascist planet confusing flesh with machinery and the thump and grind of jackbooted thugs converted to the punch of pistons and whine of heavy machinery. It is fitting then that there is a single human voice singing within these compositions, something beautiful and human within a dehumanized violent shell.
The group, to their credit, is clearly not obsessed with or interested in diminishing their angst for appearance’s sake. This angry music for a fucked up generation; there are pop songs and pleasant sounds elsewhere. Sometimes it is good to ease your sorrow and distract your mind from how utterly fucked we are, and doomed to die even if we weren’t as totally fucked. But sometimes it’s good to just lay in it and wallow. For the fourth album in a row, HEALTH provides an ideal, highly-aestheticized portrait of contemporary angst under capitalism, fascism, and the terror of a dying planet filled with cruel and dying bodies.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.