HEALTH can be identified as part of a growing contingent of indie rock bands that channel noise-rock and new wave influences into a revivalist genre often described as “Nu Gaze.” Nu Gaze acts are prone to two common pitfalls: they can be little more than cheap imitations of their legendary forebears, and they can fail to augment their aural attack with subtlety. HEALTH, to their credit, have avoided the path of mere derivation. As with their fellow L.A. scenesters No Age, one of the few bands to successfully grapple with Nu Gaze in recent years, the four piece has created a brutal, hybrid sound that is entirely its own. Unfortunately, originality alone does not a triumph make, and “Get Color” largely shows that while HEALTH has plenty of promise, the band has yet to discover how to make a consistently good album.
That is not to say that the traditional new wave and shoegaze traits aren’t visible in “Get Color,” their sophomore studio outing. The indelible stamp of My Bloody Valentine can be heard in Jake Duzsik’s vocals. Whereas Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s heavily dubbed harmonies were central to that band’s sound, Duzsik attempts to recreate that kind of sound individually, singing between tenor and contralto through a rather liberal use of reverb. He successfully generates an effect of androgyny, but the vocals can feel insincere as a result.
HEALTH’s originality has always been most evident in the sheer force and power of their sound. Their 2007 eponymous debut album was unrelenting in its fury, the repetitive, ear-splitting synths enhanced by maniacal drumming that would put most thrash bands to shame. Unfortunately, on that record, the songs were virtually indistinguishable, and the continuous electronic mayhem was overkill. HEALTH urgently needed an induction of discipline.
The greatest success of “Get Color” is the way that HEALTH has harnassed its fury, exhibiting greater control and less self-indulgence. At 35 minutes, it is admirably concise, and the songs are generally taut. But with a lack of melody and an obsession with death and destruction that is never convincing, “Get Color” can be a wearying listen.
The album opens with “In Heat,” an essentially meaningless piece of noise that clocks in at only 1:48 but would still count as filler if it were anywhere else in the album. As an opener, it serves as the intro to “Die Slow,” the album’s lead single and most representative song. “Die Slow” has all the elements of HEALTH’s style: a mix of elaborate, heavy synths with drums and guitar, buried androgynous vocals and an industrial feel that is reminiscent of Trent Reznor.
The industrial influence ads color musically, but it fails to provide thematic depth. The album is steeped in monotonously dark imagery; take for further evidence the songs entitled “Severin” and “Eat Flesh.” What the record needs is a little lightness, a relief from its overbearing gloom. The unyielding, pounding percussion only reinforces the prevailing theme.
The album’s best songs, “Death +” and “Before Tigers,” succeed because they eschew the affectations of noise rock and the excesses of overwrought industrial metal, instead incorporating their androgynous vocals and skillful arrangements into a jammy, electronica–meets–rock framework that resembles, without imitating, the more relaxed aesthetic that Radiohead employed with “In Rainbows.” The restraint demonstrated in these songs make them the only ones which reveal musical and vocal subtleties on repeated listens.
“Before Tigers” is followed by the decidedly unsubtle “Severin” and “Eat Flesh,” which are the closest “Get Color” comes to the all out sonic violence of their eponymous debut. After that, however, there is a sudden and even forced change of pace. The final tracks, “We Are Water” and “In Violet,” are slower, dirgelike experiments with softness. Both unfortunately fall flat because HEALTH appear completely incapable of coming up with melodic beauty, even of a disturbing kind. Instead, the album peters out—anticlimax rather than conclusion.
There is much to like and admire about HEALTH. They have ambition, musical skill, fabulous drumming and the ability to combine a remarkably diverse set of influences into something recognizably their own. Yet their project is in a sense doomed by its very nature. The number of great albums that are this uniformly morbid and humorless can be counted on one hand, and Jake Duzsik is no Ian Curtis. For now they remain a band of promise rather than one of real achievement.
—Staff writer Keshava D. Guha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.