Sounds Heard: HEALTH—Get Color
Listening to the opening sounds of Health’s Get Color makes me want to grab the nearest disgruntled electronic musician, slap them, and say “See! We won! All the kids are doing it now!” And while this is true, not all the kids are doing it as well as HEALTH. “Noise rock,” as it seems to be labeled these days, usually means nothing more than slapping post-production distortion on the drums over the top of a tired punk riff from the early 80′s (seriously guys, you’re not fooling us; some of us were alive then). And while I would say that, yes, that is “noisy,” it does not make it “noise”, which we can chalk up as a total shit descriptor of any kind of popular music. Seriously, go back again and listen to Williams Mix; now that is noise (and he did it in 1952, shoot me in the face).
HEALTH’s Get Color is one of the more standout rock albums I have heard in years, so let’s dig under the hood to see what makes it so special. First of all there is the epic pop-songery found in the tunes “We Are Water” and “Before Tigers,” amongst others. The sound the band has cultivated is dirty and raw, but a quick comparison to their 2007 self-titled album shows they are shedding some of their grimy mathiness for sugarcoated popiness. The vocal tunes are often bubblegum-sweet and some guitar riffs are straight out of 1980s video games, but this does nothing to diminish the intensity of the music and everything to increase its catchiness. Honestly, I have no idea what the words are on most of this album, but at the same time I have no problem with it. The vowel sounds are enough to keep me interested and if I sound like a demented manbaby reciting traditional Quechua songs as I sing these tunes in the shower, so be it.
Repetition is no foreigner to the band’s bag of tricks, and the group throws down some great grooves, both pitched and un-, some with heavy guitars and some as distorted digital mayhem. There is also a bizarre mix of disparate elements, like the almost Led Zeppelin-esque riffs found on “Die Slow,” the industrial grooves of “Death+,” and the grindcore opening and closing of “Severin.” It could be strange to hear these ideas coexist on the same album, and if done poorly it just wouldn’t work. However, the combination here somehow strengthens the musical concept, allowing the group to change texture on a dime and enter a new sound space at any moment.
Along with this strange mix, the album is still danceable as hell. Sitting in my desk’s swivel chair, writing this, I have a hard time keeping still, and I have an equally hard time remembering a non-top 40 album of recent times that makes me want to shake my booty so heartily. Then there is the sheer virtuosity of all the performers, punctuated by the incredible drumming found on tracks “Severin” and “Eat Flesh.” This BJ Miller character is severely skilled human being. With the wrong parents he would currently be holed up in a practice room learning the Liszt sonata, so let’s thank his upbringers for encouraging him with the sticks and skins.
All of these elements make Get Color a great listen, but what really makes this album stick out is the band’s solid understanding of technology and how to make it musical. Distortion, reverb, and effects are not an afterthought for HEALTH; they are part of the composition and orchestration process. The fact is, I have no idea how the band is making many of these sounds, and I love that. What is that percussive loop on “In Violet”? Is it a distorted and gated hi-hat doubled by some kind of distorted guitar? What is that swelling chord in “In Heat,” a harmonized guitar going through a reverb unit with amplitude modulation on top? Is that a completely mangled voice in the main riff of “Die Slow” or some kind of guitar or synthesizer? These guys have the skills with guitar pedals and effects units that Gérard Grisey had with clarinets and contrabasses, and it is clear to me that they are finding interesting sounds first and then writing the music with those sounds in mind.
For a music that has been essentially stagnant since the early ’90s (with a few scattered exceptions), a new sound to guitar driven rock is exciting news for fans everywhere. Electronic technology has been the driving force behind musical innovation since the late Les Paul invented both the electric guitar and the multitrack recorder in the 1940s. HEALTH and other bands like them are proving that there is still further to take this medium, and still new musics to find through its exploration.