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HEALTH - VOL. 4 :: SLAVES OF FEAR Music Album Reviews

The Los Angeles band used to make lithe, multifaceted songs that wrapped daring pop melodies in bristling noise; now, they seem content to complain into a murky hybrid of trip-hop and metal.

Jacob Duzsik sneers the words “Life is good” on HEALTH’s 2015 single “New Coke,” slithering downward on the third word, cracking it into two syllables. His voice, processed through a metallic filter, runs thick with irony. An acerbic synthesizer chord rises like smoke at his proclamation. It’s not the most subtle strategy, a cheery bumper sticker slogan with pleas for guns to go off and bombs to explode, but it lends the song some dimension. In three words, Duzsik undercuts the forced optimism that seeps from every Coke commercial and bank ad, every shallow rendering of a bought life. Consumerism’s plastered smiles make an easy target, but HEALTH’s aim is true all the same.

VOL. 4 :: SLAVES OF FEAR, the L.A. band’s fourth original studio album, loses the thematic and musical density packed into their first three. Gone are the complex, ferocious rattles of percussion that pitched HEALTH toward the toothier end of late-aughts neo-psychedelia; instead, heavy, slogging drumbeats keep time one sledgehammer wallop at a time. Gone are the crystalline synth trills that seemed to always cluster around Duzsik’s cybernetically androgynous voice. Even the frontman’s usually translucent delivery sounds clouded and dulled, like the record’s pervasive, muddy low end is dragging him down. SLAVES OF FEAR marks the first new HEALTH album since founding member Jupiter Keyes split from the band in late 2015, and his absence wears through every song. HEALTH used to make lithe, multifaceted songs that wrapped daring pop melodies in bristling noise; now, they seem content to complain into a murky hybrid of trip-hop and metal.

Distorted power chords abound throughout SLAVES OF FEAR, but they tend to come in ones and twos, not progressions. “FEEL NOTHING” breaks up its vocal segments with a chugging fart of a guitar riff, the kind you’d hear choked out of a flying V and a practice amp at Guitar Center. The lyrics are no less blunt. “We didn’t choose to be born/Under a dying sun,” sings Duzsik. “Let’s get numb/Till we don’t feel nothing.” I suspect the song got stuck with the name “FEEL NOTHING” because there’s already a nu-metal track called “Numb,” and while this isn’t the place to discuss the relative merits of Linkin Park, their take on the time-honored tradition of freezing away existential pain at least came with four whole chords and a hook.

HEALTH have never directed much attention to their lyrics—even on the more pop-oriented DEATH MAGIC, where the vocals rose higher in the mix, they rang more as textural accent than focal point—but so little happens musically on SLAVES OF FEAR that the ear tends to fall on what Duzsik is actually singing, which is scrambled magnetic teen poetry. “Life is not but rocks and dirt and bitterness now,” he seethes on the stuttering, hollow “LOSS DELUXE.” “Life is but to burn and rot and stink in the ground.” (Pretty sure that’s called death, my guy!) On “THE MESSAGE,” he speaks to the generational ennui of a sweeping “we”: “Bored when we’re young/We can’t wait to grow up/We get old, we give up/Then we pray to grow young.” The life cycle of the perpetually miserable folds in on itself. “Life/A mystery/Euphoria and misery,” Duzsik muses on “STRANGE DAYS (1999),” nodding to the complexity of human existence and then immediately splitting it into two experiential poles.

While HEALTH’s messaging, such as it is, has varied in the past from “New Coke”’s smirking anti-slogans to the ambiguous but arresting declarative “YOU WILL LOVE EACH OTHER,” now the band seems content to throw up their hands and just die. Certain metal bands take pervasive suffering as lyrical impetus, but when it works, the muscle of the music pushes through even the most totalizing despair. A well-written metal album takes suffering as its starting point and punches through the lid of its coffin, finding joy, catharsis, release by way of sick riffs. SLAVES OF FEAR forgoes riffs and instead just wallows. This shit does not shred.

At least HEALTH had the decency to slap SLAVES OF FEAR right on the cover of the thing so that everyone would know this was the type of band to take slavery as a metaphor for contemporary alienation. “We want to be different/But we don’t want to try too hard,” Duzsik sings on the title track. The “we,” it seems, refers to the slaves, the slaves of fear, and if I try any harder to connect the dual sensation of edginess and laziness with slavery, the all-American institution that killed and brutalized millions of people for hundreds of years, I am going to have to take a long walk into the sun.

Fear pervades the present moment, as does sorrow, angst, and helplessness. HEALTH is not wrong that the past few years have been a big, steamy bucket of suffering. But SLAVES OF FEAR offers only a closed loop: It invites you to suffer because of the existence of suffering, to look upon the despair of the world and despair. There is no fight in these songs, not even the faintest stab at hope. There’s just empty moaning, and a lone, feeble guitar that chugs for all eternity in hell.

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