HEALTH- Rat Wars (Album Review)

Dec. 11, 2023


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HEALTH may be productive when it comes to collaborations, remixes, and other miscellaneous projects, but when it comes to their actual full length albums things have ended up being a bit more spaced out.  Following 2019’s Vol. 4 :: Slaves of Fear they spent some time composing music for Grand Theft Auto Online, and then went crazy with collaborations on the two volumes of DISCO4.  These releases featured guest appearances that fit with HEALTH’s industrial and electronic elements over the past decade, but also a surprising amount of metal and hip-hop/trap.  The former seems to have seeped into their latest album Rat Wars, which retains the electro-industrial elements of Vol. 4 but incorporates a significant amount of industrial metal.  It’s a polished and hook driven effort that offers the heaviest material HEALTH has written in awhile while retaining the softer, ethereal moments of the past, making for a strong listen from beginning to end.

There were electronic elements to HEALTH’s earlier material, but the self-titled and 2009’s Get Color emphasized just as much noise rock and even some no-wave in their structure.  It wasn’t until they scored the Max Payne 3 soundtrack and released 2015’s Death Magic that things really pivoted over towards electronic, industrial, and everything in between.  This direction had quite a few darker moments mixed in with big hooks and booming electronic beats but traded it in for the sheer noise and harshness of HEALTH’s earlier days.  While Rat Wars is still undeniably polished and has some pop hooks at points, this is the heaviest and darkest the group has been in some time.  “Demigods” does a great job of showcasing the dynamic of heavy and ethereal listeners are in for over the course of the album, as it opens with a huge sound and swirling electronic melodies that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Carpenter Brut album but also throws in bursts of heavy guitar work that feels ripped out of an industrial metal circa the late 90s to early 2000s.  It’s the type of track that immediately draws you in, and it pivots towards a more cyberpunk and heavy break at the end that will make you want to crank up the volume to the max.  Some moments have a distinctive synthwave vibe, while others recall the industrial metal of the 90s, making it appropriate that “Sicko” samples Godflesh’s “Like Rats”.  “Children of Sorrow” leans into the metal side as chugging guitars collide with driving beats, while “Crack Metal” feels like it could easily have come off Nine Inch Nail’s The Downward Spiral.  But despite how many other artists HEALTH is reminiscent of at different points throughout Rat Wars, they manage to combine everything in a way that has a feel of its own and there are memorable sections on almost every song.  I also like how the album flows, as it smartly moves between the heavy and melodic sides of the band’s sound in ways that keep the material from becoming repetitive.  “Don’t Try” opts for a drearier and hazy style to close things out, offering a reflective tone that is similar to “Still Breathing” from DISCO4 :: PART II

No matter how heavy and jagged the industrial and metal elements become, the vocals keep things on the softer end of the spectrum.  This is one area that HEALTH has remained consistent for over a decade, as Jake Duzsik has one of those pitches that has a more ethereal quality to it and seems to hover over the recording.  “Hateful” features some backing screams that up the intensity a bit, but for the most part Duzsik remains the star of the show.  His performance moves between more laid back and reflective verses and more direct ones, with “Don’t Try” benefiting from the wistful and washed out nature of the singing.  Admittedly this is the one area of Rat Wars that is lacking in variation compared to the instrumentation, but considering this is a stand-alone full-length and not a collaborative effort it does make sense.  The performance does fit well though, and the performances from tracks like “Crack Metal” and “DSM-V” continue to stand out on repeat listens.

Despite the pre-release info hyping up the heaviness and metallic side of the sound, don’t go into this one expecting a sudden return to HEALTH’s noisier and chaotic roots.  Instead, Rat Wars balances the booming electronic and pop laden hooks of their more recent material with a significant dose of industrial metal’s distorted riffs and intensity.  The album has a seamless flow from beginning to end and quite a few hooks that stand out both on the first listen and subsequent ones, making this a memorable effort and one that feels like a culmination of everything the band has explored to date.  It’s one I’ve personally gotten a lot of mileage out of, and it also serves as a nice late year surprise for fans of everything industrial.  Rat Wars is available from Loma Vista Recordings.

-Review by Chris Dahlberg