Live review: HEALTH at the Echoplex
In HEALTH’s new video for their single "USA Boys," a young couple throw a wild rumpus in a decrepit warehouse, drop a few hallucinogens, and collapse in a surprisingly forthright tangle of soft-core sex.
It’s also kind of a metaphor for the fiendishly ambitious Los Angeles quartet’s career up to this point. Their self-titled debut in 2007 imagined a very strange world where Ornette Coleman recruited a bunch of recovering thrash-metal heads to back him at the Super Bowl halftime show. The tracks were essentially dozens of jagged sonic objects clanking together.
But HEALTH performed them with painstaking skill and ferocity, and had such an unexpected asset in singer Jake Duzsik’s wispy voice (which recalled My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher more than anything), that what might have been a notch in the Smell’s beloved realm of the barely listenable took on the heft of a future arena act.After a dance-inclined remix record and 2009’s album "Get Color," in fact, they became one, opening for Nine Inch Nails on that band’s final round of touring. "Color" dialed down the competitive restlessness of their songs and let their drummer, the surgically punishing BJ Miller, finally play deeper rhythms. Duzsik wrote more evocative melodies, and like on the indie-hit "Die Slow," their textures turned less violent and more creepily synthetic.
After HEALTH’s sold-out headlining show at the Echoplex on Tuesday, it’s clear they’ve finished the job of transforming from a band trying to upend everything in music to one that can do absolutely anything within it. And the sex is finally more important than the broken buildings around it.
The most striking thing about a HEALTH live set is just how athletic it is. Their stage is strewn with drums, samplers and acres of effects pedals, giving the quartet – with bassist John Famiglietti and guitarist Jupiter Keyes – endless things to bang on and futz with. HEALTH looks like a traditional rock band, but every sound is so processed that it’s visually disconnected, and frees the band up to other kinds of performance. Even when Famiglietti’s only task is to sashay across the stage and swing his inky drape of hair around for a song’s bridge, it feels essential to the show.
That charisma is a big part of why, in these outsider musical circles, the heaving Echoplex crowd could receive a hissing, gnarled tune like "Crimewave" with a similar giddiness to what Jay-Z gets for "Empire State of Mind." The band’s recent dips into disco (a second remix album is pending) seemed to clarify their songs live. If L.A.’s downtown vegan skateboarding culture can have jock jams, they would sound like Tuesday’s takes on "Death+" and "Die Slow."
But the more exciting moments were, as is often the case with HEALTH, whatever is most current for them. On record, "USA Boys" is a laptop-y strut built on a keyboard riff that begs for a mashup with 50 Cent’s "I Get Money." With a vicious band atop it live, however, it felt like a distillation of how today’s smart kids know to listen to both Power 106 FM and fringe cassette culture – every good sound is available to take and make new.
HEALTH is so good at that synthesis and reinvention that it affords them a certain mystique onstage. On occasion, the band seemed frustrated by the mix and spent more time instrument-wrangling than usual. But because anything they do onstage could hypothetically be musical, these moments looked less like fixing a problem and more like setting a timer on a bomb.
Their one-song encore, a 30-second howl of flying knees and elbows, ended as abruptly as it came and felt witty and deserved for it. Like their video’s stars, after all the blissy tension they’d built, HEALTH earned something quick and frantic for themselves.
-- August Brown
Photos, from top: John Famiglietti and Jake Duzsik of HEALTH.
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