Los Angeles is a mythical place.
Hollywood, its iconic mountain-top sign secured in the collective conscious of a world who has no idea that it was originally built by a real estate developer in order to sell land, has thousands of stories of young hopefuls attempting to crash it’s party. Los Angeles itself has had hundreds of songs written about it (the best, by far, to my thinking are the dream/nightmare bookends of The Doors “L.A. Woman” and X’s “Los Angeles“). The whole fantasy seems predicated upon the pioneer notion of just going west; of, if not escaping, then certainly changing for the better. That the reality never lives up to the fantasy is almost a given. But, even so, this is only addressing the reality for outsiders. Outsiders must learn the hard way what natives always know. It’s not what you think.
L.A. band Heath recorded 11 songs at the all-ages venue The Smell located in downtown Los Angeles. Generally speaking, it’s not very interesting to delve into where a band recorded it’s record. Long gone are the days of records having distinctive sounds because a certain studio was utilized over another one (significant exceptions, however, do exist.) It’s interesting that Health recorded inside The Smell, though, because it speaks completely to the idea of community and connection. Sure, it may also speak to limited financial means, too. But The Smell is ground-zero for the entire experimental/rock scene in Los Angeles. (By way of comparison think of the Die Slaughterhaus and Rob’s House scenes in Atlanta or even the old Landfill/Elephant 6 scene here in Athens. That is, even if the bands sound wildly different there’s a common, shared aesthetic; a camaraderie; a kinship.)
The band’s self-titled debut album was released last week via the tiny Lovepump United and is a sharp lesson in economy. The 11 songs clock in just under a half hour. Individual tracks, though, don’t lend the same weight to the project as sitting through the whole thing. Beginning with a natural-reverb throb of “Heaven” the band almost lulls the listener into complacency thinking, “Ok, I’ve heard Battles and I think I know where this is going.” But, you don’t. The band immediately bookmarks the space between throbby-bliss(“Heaven”) and vocal-bliss (“Triceratops”) with the metal-cum-spazz of the 36-second “Girl Attorney” which has the entire history of Gregg Ginn’s guitar spilled across it. Once “Triceratops” gets about 45 seconds in it switched gears from its vocal and guitar assault into straight ahead tribal drumming territory before coming back into itself and folding the sound over and over. It’s remarkable.
That Health chose to record inside the womb of the scene from which it sprung is not only charmingly loyal, it’s circular and insular. The band sounds like itself. Rather than aping the sounds of haughty minded art-rock outfits Health places it’s art securely within a rock-context. It’s the sound of a band willingly residing inside the parameters of what typically constitutes a rock band but then stabbing the walls with all it’s energy. It’s a hard thing to fathom, and the bands motivations are a mystery, but the overall effect is one of experimental poetry rather than experimental music. They’ve used a common language but have twisted the syntax.
Taken individually, tracks like “Zoothorns” and “Courtship” can come off sounding ill-fitting and pretentious; like the band doesn’t really have a point or they’re stretching beyond both what they can do and their reason for doing it. As part of a whole work, though, they function to prevent the listener from ever becoming steady. It’s not so much a record one is forced to wrestle as it is a record one wants to wrestle. The listener wants to deal with it; become involved. It’s not an easy listen, to be sure. But, that said, I don’t believe it was the intention of the band to make an unpleasant record. (Indeed, the band ends the record with “Lost Time” which, featuring echo-y voices and by-now-you-used-to-it pounding drums, functions as pure doxology rather than a mere ending.) Uneasy, certainly, but not one that causes the listener to be ill at ease. Rather, it’s a record that challenges assumptions.
It’s not what you think.