Saturday, November 21, 2015
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY
Written by Jon Hecht
What does it take to fill a room with music?
A good publicist can fill it with people, and good equipment
can fill it with noise—loud, aching noise, that bubbles up from your toes and
into your ribs; epic, unsettling noise that you hear in your tongue and your
skull just as much as your ears; angry, throbbing noise that passes right
through you and disturbs the air behind your body. But there’s more to it than
The crowd at HEALTH was into it. They danced. They screamed and
cheered. They let the synthetic feedback being pumped at unholy decibel levels
from the amplifiers on the stage move through them. They did what a crowd does
at a really good show. They turned the noise coming out of the speakers into
HEALTH is a band that understands noise. They come from years
of playing it. They started with guitar feedback and screeches, experimenting
with getting rid of songs and all the things that normally turn collections of
sounds into “music.” They fell into a category of early-aughts experimental
music that made them comparable to Black Dice and Battles, that seemingly
thought that the problem with “noise-rock” heroes like Sonic Youth or My Bloody
Valentine was that pesky rock getting in the way of the screeching.*
Then, in a change that has been better documented by writers better paid than I,
they listened to the pop charts, and after being inspired by the loud
synthesizers on danceable hits, switched from all that guitar feedback to using
computer-generated instruments that they modeled on them. That feeling on
earworms where a well placed bass note from a shiny, expensive sounding
synthesizer just fills you with the reckless abandon that pop does? They do
that kind of thing, except instead of harnessing it for pop’s youth and
vitality, they make it into a really insane gut-punch.
It’s great on a record. It’s better live.
There are three people on-stage, and one of them doesn’t seem
to do much besides play with some pedals and knobs, occasionally pick up a bass
guitar and strum it once or twice, and wave his long, straight black hair in an
exaggerated windmill. Good lord that man can whip his hair. We’ve all shaken
our heads at music, and we’ve all gotten dizzy from it, but this guy has stamina
for the most rock and roll of head gestures that is just invigorating to watch.
Meanwhile next to him is a guitarist/singer, who makes loud
noises with the former and surprisingly sweet-sounding melodies with the
latter, like sugar laced with dynamite. Every note was louder than possible,
played through enough filters and synthetic amplifiers to be unrecognizable as
a guitar sound. The drummer somehow does that too, banging away at normal drums
and making them sound like they’re the weird drum-ish sounds on a Casio keyboard.**
This is an unbelievably impressive thing to do. He hits the normal, acoustic
drum just like a drummer normally does, and what comes out of the speakers is
the sound of a robot. It’s a reverse Turing test.
The whole show is like that. We all become machines, and we
cheer just as much when the amplifiers play disco-y shimmers as when the wretch
out the ear-splitting horror that opens their album’s single, “STONEFIST,”***
periodically through the concert. We sing along when they finally play it like
it’s Top 40, because in its own way, it is.
The band ends on a crescendo. They were loud. They were
intense. Then they got louder. Then they walked off stage, waited the requisite
break before and encore, and then came back.
They played guitars for this part. They played the kind of
noisy screeches that they would have a few albums and years ago, before they
hit this transformation. They played the kind of noises that are supposed to
hurt your ears, and make your parents worried about your well-being and annoy
But for that brief outro, they sounded tame. They sounded like
music of the past, when we could all have our eardrums boiled by nothing
crazier than a six string plugged into pedals, and not the fully artificial
synthesizer sounds they use now.
It was an answer to the question I asked at the beginning of
this review. There’s a sound of the vanguard, a sound of the future, a sound
that changes what you think sounds can be.
I think I’ve made it over-abundantly clear that I think HEALTH
are that sound, and that that sound is incredible. I listened to them on record
and heard a sound I’d never heard anything like before. I saw them live and I
went beyond hearing it. I felt it.
*No disrespect meant by this—Battles is awesome.
**This is 100% a good thing. It may not seem like it, but
HEALTH have reclaimed the Casio keyboard’s badly programmed drums. They play
synthesized snares, scratchy blips and handclaps that have never encountered
human hands like Paganini played violin. I would say that HEALTH should become
the official spokesband of Casio, except that I don’t think that anyone, even
Casio, is still selling those old things anymore, and the loud noises would
probably be bad for selling stuff.
***DID I MENTION HOW EVERYTHING ABOUT HEALTH IS IN ALL CAPS? THEIR ALBUM
IS CALLED DEATH MAGIC, BECAUSE OF
COURSE IT IS.