Menacing synths swell over lo-fi, classical guitars as Health begin their new album, Vol. 4: Slaves of Fear. The band has combined noise rock with electronic beats spanning various genres for over ten years. Their fourth full-length retains Health’s abrasive, beat-driven style but makes departures into more genres and ideas than ever before.
There are still beats made from feedback, effeminate vocals, and driving synths, but the trio take the record into new territory, sometimes both surprising and delighting and other times underwhelming.
After the intro, “Psychonaut,” the tracks waste no time presenting themselves and blasting through varied moments of grooves and violence. Alternating through linear and more traditional song structures, the first few tracks continuously engage and obfuscate with fierce spasms, aggressive starts and stops, and layered, distorted guitars which are sometimes indiscernible from the feedback-ridden trap beats.
The first half of the record thrills, with rhythms and guitar chugs reminiscent of gun shots and experimental structures that include stand-alone moments never to be heard again. But as the record continues it settles into less familiar, yet increasingly accessible, territory. At times it is very poppy, clashing with the often-aggressive vibe.
There is everything from industrial hammers, engineered manipulations, and grooves that force you to bob your head. Softer beats are interrupted by loud synth pulses that blend into each other. The submerged, sci-fi drones and coolly calm beats of “NC-17” are juxtaposed with ominous background sounds. Overall, the varied sound cohesively like the Health we know, but as the record moves forward, it becomes less and less thrilling.
I enjoy the groovy beats and loud paroxysms, but something about the addition of calmer styles tames the rage of Slaves of Fear’s lyrical themes. The increasingly sassy vocals don’t help. I absolutely loathe the vocal take in “The Message,” for which the only reprieve are the screams behind them in the choruses, but others I take to just fine.
The acoustic guitars from the introduction return in the final track, “Decimation,” which is Health doing a god damn ballad. For me, it is a strange end to the album, alerting fans that they won’t remain in their noise rock roots. Reverbed beats, echoes, clean guitars, synth leads, guitar leads, and choir keys build to become a powerful downbeat climax. Yet I can’t escape the feeling that the true violence, the frenetic spirit of the band is lost. Sometimes the obscure can only stay so for so long.