Written by Ronny Kerr. Photos by Ronny Kerr.
LA-based noise rockers HEALTH played the Independent in San Francisco last night, the penultimate tour date for their new album, Death Magic. Here are impressions and photos from the show, starting with the opening acts, Ian Hicks and Pictureplane.
Ian Hicks walked up to his compact stage setup and pressed play, instantly filling the room with massive acid house. No fade in, no intro, nothing gradual about it: just straight up, wall-shaking acid house.
No one was dancing—the fate of the first opener—making it feel like we’d just stumbled upon an incredible underground warehouse party at five in the morning where everyone was already coming down from the drugs. He shuffled styles ever so slightly throughout the half-hour set, at one point channeling the Field’s early minimal techno on From Here We Go Sublime.
Following Hicks was Pictureplane, another musician who stood solo at the helm of his electronic devices, rattling the walls with a strange medley of musical styles. I heard searing industrial saws reminiscent of early Nine Inch Nails. I heard funky house. I swear I even heard a little 90s trance in there.
The best thing that I could say about the man was that he was feeling himself. Dressed in black from head to toe—shiny black Doc Martens, black skinny jeans with torn kneecaps, black long-sleeved shirt underneath a black t-shirt proclaiming “Lucifer’s the Light of the World” in Gothic text, black cap, and black half-finger, weightlifting gloves—he bobbed around the stage in a figure eight, chanting black, inaudible lyrics into the microphone.
Originally from Denver and now spreading his love of electronic punk to New York City, Pictureplane knew what he was doing. By the third piece, which sounded like Pretty Hate Machine meets “Planet Rock,” the crowd was moving and feeling good. The last few songs explored drum & bass rhythms, nostalgic vaporwave vibes, and even some Ace of Base-inspired melodies.
In the end, however, HEALTH dominated.
The first opener did his job by playing loud music. The second did his by getting people moving. And the main act shot an electric shock through the entire crowd.
For the uninitiated, HEALTH is an LA-based, three-piece noise rock band probably most well-known for the infectiously dancy Crystal Castles remix of their 2007 song “Crimewave.” You probably recognize the remix. Now listen to the original and scratch your head in confusion. It might seem illogical, but the connection between noise and dance is significant to understanding the music of HEALTH, who have so far released two “DISCO” albums compiling dance remixes of their tracks.
For their show at the Independent, the band drew heavily from their newest album Death Magic, easily the band's most accessible of their three full-length releases. Your humble author is admittedly more a fan of the band’s earlier cuts, which sit at a crossroads of math rock and noise, precariously balancing monstrous rhythms like perfect equations on a mountaintop.
Some of their new songs though—"Stonefist," “Dark Enough,” "Life," "New Coke," “L.A. Looks"—are significantly more poppy, at times making the band seem schizophrenic, leaping from what might’ve been noise rock mania a moment ago to, suddenly, a sentimental indie ballad.
It’s jarring, but maybe that’s the point.
After all, who really wants to hear an hourlong performance of noise? (Okay, I do.) But, in retrospect, there’s actually something refreshing about the balance HEALTH strikes between their “mathy” pieces involving insane, calculated rhythms, their hair swinging heavy metal, and their catchy new wave songs.
Basically, HEALTH are intoxicating performers.
They are immense, colorful, hedonistic. At times they are heavy, deadly, even demonic, while other times they are beautiful, wondrous, and emotional. There are songs of complete madness, and there are songs where they pin their hearts to the wall. And at the end of it all, there is catharsis.
What sealed the deal for me was the encore. The band returned to the stage soon after departing, picked up their instruments, launched into a clashing metallic palette of riffs and drum hits (“Girl Attorney”?), and then wrapped it up after 30 seconds. Probably the shortest encore ever performed at the Independent.
HEALTH concludes their tour tonight back home in Los Angeles, where their show at the Teragram Ballroom is already sold out. But if you’re in New Zealand or Australia, they’ll be coming your way in February.