Going to see a reasonably well-known band that you haven’t really listened to can be an interesting pursuit. It’s the stuff festivals are made of, obviously, but it’s just as fun the other nine months of the year. It works on expectations, really. Obviously, if you’re going to see a band that some of your friends like, or that have been talked about by people, blogs, magazines or sites you respect, you’re going to have a store of plusses and minuses in your head before you begin. An imaginary checklist of presumptions that you can tick off as you go, correct or incorrect according to the infinitely more nuanced reality of a band playing live compared with how you think it’s going to be in your head.
I had a whole cache of these assumptions for HEALTH. Want a list?
All capitals in the name: minus, it’s pretentious. From The Smell scene in LA: plus, there are some great bands from there. Associated with Crystal Castles: minus, not a fan of those precocious goons. Their record label’s called Lovepump United: minus, come on guys. Use of something called a Zoothorn: plus. Vague recollections of someone saying they were a bit like Liars: plus. A lot of forward slashes: minus, don’t know why.
Overall though, without having listened properly to very much of their music, prejudice had me thinking “pretentious electro punk knobs”.
Wrong as usual, right?
Well, not really. I thoroughly enjoyed the gig, but that’s not to say that there weren’t electro elements, punk elements and elements of being a knob involved in HEALTH’s music. But we’ll get back to that.
First on at the gig were Wounds, a Dublin band who are impressing a wide variety of people at a steady rate, getting supports with everyone from Canada’s metalcore-ish Cancer Bats to the Irish sciencecore (and presumably anti-cancer) BATS, as well as Gallows, Mi Ami and (maybe) !!!.
Going on soon enough after 8 o’clock, they were guaranteed to encounter some empty floor space in Whelans, but this didn’t really present a problem. Their singer just brought the microphone stand to the floor and, for want of a better word, stalked it in a vaguely threatening fashion while shouting some quite doomy things and occasionally lying down. There was something Lovvers-y about the style, but Lovvers‘ crowd interaction/screaming from the floor seems to come from more of a “let’s all dance” motive of barrier breaking, whereas Wounds were more towards the “push you out of your comfort zone” end, on the evidence of that one show.
Their sound is about two beats slower than hardcore, and three beats faster than a lot of noise rock, but it’s heavy without slipping into pastiche, and it’s energetic to the point where it’s kinda tiring to watch them even if they’re playing a first support at 8.30. I imagine getting them in a stuffy, small room with a loud PA would be tantamount to rapture. It’s a cliche, but these are ones to watch. I am reliably informed that there’s an EP going up on iTunes soon, and if you have an irrational hatred of the shiny, horribleness of that programme and store like your humble blogger, there could be a 7″ on the cards too.
After Wounds, there was a time warp. Then HEALTH played.
The element that carries HEALTH is energy. That’s not a criticism, it’s just an observation. In his ultra-controversial Animal Collective slating, Ian divided music into head music, heart music and gut music – that’s not a conceit I buy into, but it got me thinking about the way music works. There is music that works quite heavily at a linguistic level, whether something where the lyrics are pretty much the point like art rap or a lot of folk music, or something like Of Montreal where the web of references and significations is a huge part of what’s going on.
But then there is music that doesn’t work on the level of language at all. It works on that curious level that makes music as a whole sort of hard to explain. It just gets you. It’s pretty demonstrable that HEALTH don’t make “music to make girls dance” as Alex Kapranos memorably put it. It might be a by-product, but with HEALTH it’s mostly about fucking around with you, I think. Making you dance one way and then interrupting you with a peal of feedback, a crash of drums and five seconds of screaming.
The lyrics aren’t important, but there are vocals, and I find that kind of interesting on an existential level for some reason. If you can’t hear what’s being said – and various interviews including the one in latest Connected reveal this to be intentional – you can’t be drawn in a particular way by it, other than at an instinctive, sound-based level. But something IS being said. It’s almost like an endnote to the song, the fact that there is a secret message that exists like a ghost inside the song without actively drawing attention to itself.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, really. It’s just one of the things that grabbed me about HEALTH, and about music in general. Sorry for being an arse.
I don’t know their songs so I can’t say which were the best and the worst, but I did enjoy everything quite a lot. The track record for Smell bands and being impressive before I know much about them on record is very high: The Mae Shi knocked me over and No Age are obviously great. HEALTH maintained the trend. Maybe it’s something to do with the venue over there, that it fosters a particularly sincere and involved form of frantic energy from bands – or maybe that’s me over-romanticising a place I’ll never go.
As I was saying before I skidded leftwards to talk about Wounds: “pretentious electro punk knobs” yea or nay? There are elements of electro in this – danceable beats sometimes, or fucked up sounds. There are elements of punk – fast, hard drums, screaming, loudness. There are elements of knobbery – everyone but the drummer spending a lot of the set on their hunkers tweaking knobs; being deliberately abstract too and not actually “singing songs” from a basic two guitars, bass, drums set-up feeds into this.
But they subvert it all. They don’t ever let you dance too complacently, they don’t ever pin “rock” colours to the mast for long enough to let you decide that they really believe any of that crap. And the pretentiousness is in pursuit of a greater cause: making good, interesting music. Music that makes you think for the length of a gigantic blog post even though you don’t really know what it’s all about.