Death Magic (Loma Vista)
The stylisation of HEALTH’s moniker has always been entirely fitting. The L.A. four-piece create the kind of musical ground swell that means they couldn’t be considered anything other an ‘UPPERCASE’ kind of band. But it’s clear that, for HEALTH at least, this kind of output does not lend itself to prolific songwriting.
The fact is that (with the exception of their scoring for the ultraviolet Max Payne 3 video game) Death Magic is the band’s first full length in six years, and only their third in a near decade long career.
On the release of 2009’s uncompromisingly visceral Get Color, HEALTH set a new high bar for beat-heavy noise rock and established their signature sound as one of intermittent onslaughts of spiky buzzing electronics and heart stompingly frenetic beats. But if Get Color was the adolescent, snotty teenager of the HEALTH family, Death Magic is the erudite, slick charm factory freshly returning from a mind expanding year-out interrailing across Europe.
HEALTH’s return from their six year absence sees them return with a renewed maturity of sound and structure, and this makes Death Magic probably their most accomplished work.
This shift in approach undoubtedly has something to do with their decision to employ the production talents of The Mars Volta collaborator Lars Stalfors as well as Andrew Dawson, who has engineered much of Kanye West’s output and the witchy Haxan Cloak. The production team can often prove to be an integral element in an album’s overall sound, and this certainly seems to be the case with Death Magic.
With that said, it’s important to remember who we’re talking about here. HEALTH are a band that aren’t about to start taking cues from the pop mainstream anytime soon. Album opener ‘Victim’ launches with tribal drums that usher in a squall of distorted synths that sound like a flaming chainsaw being plunged directly into your hippocampus. But the addition of vocalist Jake Duzsik’s measured, ethereal vocals (something that has always been a trump card in HEALTH’s eclectic deck) tempers the songs on Death Magic and imbues them with a quasi-pop sensibility.
Recent singles ’Stonefist’ and ‘New Coke’, that later of which was accompanied by a video containing some of the most graphic, yet strangely compelling, vomit shots ever committed to film, sit squarely in HEALTH’s established sonic territory. ‘Stonefist’ fires scattergun beats and diamond splinter high-octane busts of synth noise that sound like the death cries of a reanimated carcass of a bionic dinosaur.
But those expecting Death Magic to be a solid continuation of HEALTH’s previous aesthetic are likely to find this album challenging, at least in places.
‘Life’, that hits the mid-point of Death Magic, is constructed around a mellow hook that has, at its heart, a pop song. The major key refrain has more in common with its EDM predecessors created by the likes of Skrillex than anything else. ‘L.A. Looks’ chimes with dance friendly synth stabs and is constructed around a solid verse-chorus-verse framework that brings HEALTH’s pop sensibilities front and centre.
The inevitable naysaying cries of some existing fans could, on the face of it, be entirely justified. But to take this view would be to miss the point. The fact is that HEALTH are ready to explore some pretty heavy existential themes in these songs. “Life is pain / But I’m afraid to die” imparts Duzsik on ‘Life’ and ‘L.A. Looks’ harbours the excruciating lines “it’s not love / but I want you”.
On Death Magic, HEALTH not only deliver some true-to-form sonic raucousness, they are also on hand to lend some heavy duty subversiveness to the notion of the pop song in general. And this is what makes Death Magic one the most intriguing and compelling albums of the year so far. Let’s just hope they don’t wait another six years before producing their next one.