ABOVE THE CURRENT
HEALTH’s evolution from experimental noise-rock iconoclasts to purveyors of industrial metal happened so gradually that the distance they’ve traveled feels even more vast in retrospect. Solidifying their club-ready crunch on 2015’s DEATH MAGIC via distorted dancefloor barnburners like “STONEFIST,” they’ve maintained a commitment to thunderous gloom while remaining open to genre cross-pollination through collaborations with the likes of Full of Hell, Nine Inch Nails, JPEGMAFIA, and Soccer Mommy. They’re also better than your favorite band at cooking up memes (and, by extension, merch) regarding their music’s place at the intersection of “sad” and “horny.”
RAT WARS, the group’s fifth album (or 15th if you’re including remix and collaborative projects and video game scores), continues the solidification of their goth-industrial aesthetic with steel-reinforced beat punishment, strobing synthesizers, and the searing heavy-metal guitars that defined 2018’s SLAVES OF FEAR. The album leans less heavily upon collaborative pieces than their recent DISCO 4 albums, aside from Lamb of God’s Willie Adler providing guitar for lead single “CHILDREN OF SORROW,” instead focusing more directly on the unique nocturnal grandeur the group have been cultivating themselves over the past 15 years.
However loud and aggressive the music gets—which happens most explicitly on the aforementioned “CHILDREN OF SORROW,” the dystopian pummel of “FUTURE OF HELL,” and the Godflesh-sampling “SICKO”—RAT WARS is first and foremost a pop album. A pop album that’s wrapped in leather and spikes, but a pop album nonetheless. The group enlisted previous collaborator and pop veteran Stint (Carly Rae Jepsen, Demi Lovato) to produce the album, and even amid the intensity and aggression that’s always present, even in the album’s quieter moments, RAT WARS is never without a layer of sexy sheen, like a sports car designed for optimum performance.
Though RAT WARS might be only a gradual progression in terms of its overall atmosphere, it contains some of the strongest standout songs of any HEALTH album to date. Where on previous releases their stylistic experiments were often interesting enough to stand on their own, here they predominantly exist to serve the songs, which find a consistent balance between seething menace and moody vulnerability. The chug of power chords that underscores opener “DEMIGODS” is mostly a razor-edged accompaniment to the song’s eerie goth-pop, whereas “HATEFUL” leans heavy into fishnet-and-PVC industrial EBM beats. The hyperactive sputter borrows a trick or two from former tourmates and collaborators Nine Inch Nails to thrilling effect, while “ASHAMED” even leans away from the throttle and into a tender, sensual R&B groove. Sad music for horny people, indeed.