Sydney, Australia-based indie dance trio Holy Balm made a decent impact with their 2012 full-length debut, It's You, which arrived stateside via tastemaking Los Angeles label Not Not Fun. While that album was a fun blend of house beats and D.I.Y. sensibilities, the group's impressive sophomore album, Activity, is a considerable leap forward. Holy Balm haven't drastically altered their sound here, nor do they sound significantly more polished, but they sound far more confident and focused than ever before. The songs are catchier and the electronic instrumentation retains its live, spontaneous sound without sounding as sloppy as they occasionally did in the past; they've noticeably tightened up as musicians. All of the album's songs exceed five minutes each, but they never feel as if they're meandering. Most of these songs are poppy enough to be shortened to three or four minutes, and would sound absolutely killer on the radio or a 7", but their lengths are more reflective of the dance party that is their live show. From the outset, Holy Balm immediately sound rejuvenated, with the bouncy rhythm and Italo-disco synths of "Fashion" making a bigger impact than much of their earlier material. The song ends with playfully squirmy synths and tasteful, minimalist saxophones. On a couple of other songs, effects make the vocals seem altered (with "Hot Cold" sounding particularly trippy and smudgy), but the group seems to introduce the hooks at the beginning of the songs before branching off into more experimental waters toward the end. In a few moments, particularly "Aces," the group lets a hint of darkness in, reminiscent of the more paranoid side of Chicago house (i.e. Adonis' "No Way Back"). "Circumstance" finds Holy Balm at their most forceful, demanding "be nice to me" over an insistent, pounding beat. Closing track "Dancing Gravy II" is a bit slower and more atmospheric than its predecessors, living up to its lyric "going deeper than before." Activity is easily Holy Balm's most accomplished release to date, displaying a remarkable amount of growth and maturity.
AllMusic Review by Paul Simpson