Release Date: Aug 7, 2015
Record label: Loma Vista Recordings
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
There was a fabulous moment sometime around 2008 when indie/alternative/whatever music appeared to be so stratospherically popular that it actually looked like we might actually see a noise band – albeit a fairly accessible one – hit the charts. Crystal Castles seemed the most likely candidates; if not them, surely their sometime remix buddies HEALTH: abrasive as the LA quartet could be, there was something underlyingly fun about their glittering, hyperactive sound, which they were always willing to mould into something more nakedly enjoyable via their two fine Disco remix albums. Then the bottom fell out of indie/alternative/whatever, and the idea of U2 cracking the top 40 again seems unlikely, let alone scraggy Americans making jarring music that will never be played on daytime radio anywhere, ever.
Review Summary: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and...The loud/soft dynamic can best be described as the gasoline for modern pop music, an ingredient that’s almost as essential as it is overused. To torture a metaphor, then, HEALTH’s music is like rocket fuel and their prior albums a rattling shriek of parts disintegrating from too many forces.
HEALTH have always found themselves resisting a relatable vocal, denying the listener meaning and certainty, or sometimes just plain old security. ‘Death Magic’ sees the band relax that philosophy in favour of an artfully inclusive exhibition of pure songcraft. With a history of pulling absolute chaos from disorder, this reversal sees the Californians actually instilling structure and purpose and they prove surprisingly adept at it.
“I don’t know what I want / I know that I don’t know what I want”, chants Health singer Jake Duzsik on ‘Life’, the seventh track on the cult Los Angeles electro-punks’ third album. His lyrics reflect what’s been an uncertain period for the quartet. In the six years that have passed since the release of their last album ‘Get Color’, Health’s only major endeavour has been the recording of a largely ambient soundtrack to Max Payne 3, an ultraviolent video game that has sold over four million copies since 2012.
One of the highlights of Nine Inch Nails' Lights in the Sky tour back in 2008 was the added pleasure of watching HEALTH—then a still relatively unknown bunch of L.A. noisemakers—manage to almost steal the show. Of all the acts that Trent Reznor picked to open dates on that tour, HEALTH seemed the like the most obvious heir apparent—a band using bizarro configurations of electronics and guitars to pummel the audience into submission.
"And we both know/Love's not in our hearts" sings the trademark detached androgynous voice on "Stonefist" one last time, you gritting your teeth in anticipation of the instrumental refrain, a heavy and pounding electronic assault of synthesized distortion and kick-snare repetition, a metallic taste in the mouth, a melody, then some strangely, specifically identifiable '80s Korg keyboard sound suddenly dotting this weird landscape of Los Angeles warehouses and apocalyptic skylines. .
Avant-garde and experimental music, by its very nature, has always had a tenuous but strangely authentic relationship with the mainstream. L.A.’s HEALTH, as a product of the post-punk sensibility that joins the melodic simplicity of pop with a more sinister artistic edge, creating something offbeat and aggressive but also covertly accessible in the process, embody that idea as well as anyone else. On their first two albums, HEALTH and Get Color, the band’s greatest achievement was turning noise music into a brilliant, pseudo-melodic playground, squeezing a stealth harmonic power out of tinny guitars, incessant digital noise, and hyperactive, hyper-compressed drums.
As their furious earlier albums and all-caps name suggest, HEALTH don't do anything in half-measures. On Death Magic, they throw the extremes of their music into even sharper contrast, juxtaposing moments that shred eardrums with ones that caress them. They exploit the tension between negative space and full-bore noise as expertly as ever on "Victim," while "Men Today" and "Salvia" feel like fragmented flashbacks to the most intense parts of Get Color.
Rhythm was always at the heart of Los Angeles noiseniks HEALTH's music. Their previous two LPs — not to mention their companion remix records — had as much in common with industrial EBM as they did ambient noise. But on the quartet's first proper album in six years, HEALTH finally get into the groove.Death Magic finds the group rounding their edges and deepening their existing sound in much the same way Dan Snaith burrowed down deep on Caribou's latest.
When artists have created an aesthetic for themselves that is devoid of any affable engagement, do we really want them to reveal another side of them that may deface their true semblance? It’s rather unusual to regard HEALTH as such since they’ve connected with a more commercial orientation for years now, and yet they’ve done so by sticking to their wholly inaccessible noise. The Los Angeles four piece wrote the original score for the video game Max Payne 3 in 2012, which brought a more focused and action-oriented approach to a sound that, prior to that, swerved carelessly - as opposed to the tribal incongruity of their two full length albums, working on Payne gave them the opportunity to seek some direction instead of adhering to primitive improvisation. But the career route HEALTH has made throughout the years hasn’t been exactly linear, and in between those projects they’ve managed to release a pair of remix albums that proved their talents extend from stimulating headphone listening to the dancefloor.
Comics luminary Grant Morrison began his franchise-revitalizing run on X-Men by introducing us to a nest of feral sentinels. Designed to hunt and kill mutant-kind, the machines had been abandoned in the Ecuadorian wilderness, where they slowly began to adapt and evolve, incorporating scraps and materials from their environment into their own chassis in order to survive and propagate their “species.” The design of these machines (rendered in exquisite detail by the peerless Frank Quietly) has always stuck with me. They looked at once advanced and disquietingly primitive: sci-fi future tech that had become infected with the savagery of its surroundings.
L.A.’s HEALTH arrived like a stampeding triceratops. They had a thundering track by that name, sure, but their sound combined the massive weight and blunt strength of the extinct beast and featured piercing focal points akin to the dinosaur’s horns. There was something feral about their blend of guitars, drums, and burning synths, not to mention the Zoothorn, a microphone fed through obscuring and chaotic effects pedals.
For Los Angeles noise rockers Health, the apocalypse cannot come soon enough. “Let the guns go off/ Let the bombs explode/ Let the lights go out,” the quartet sing on New Coke, their third album’s first single, marrying the worldview of survivalists to the sound of a Neil Tennant-fronted Nine Inch Nails. As those references indicate, Death Magic is dated and, for all its attention-seeking titles (Drugs Exist, Hurt Yourself), dull.
Hatched a decade ago from within the underground incubator of famed Los Angeles DIY venue The Smell, Health first made its reputation as a relentless noise-rock band. It was less interested in decimating a stage with blown-out, thick riffs and red-faced rage than it was in gnawing scenery to shreds with razor-edged, schizophrenic drumming, and its tenacity left contrails of sweat in the air well after the members peeled themselves off the floor. The band’s 2007 self-titled debut was so raw that it blistered and popped and oozed in six-second intervals.
Death - the great equaliser, the unknown, the abyss. Musically, over the past six years, many bands, and even scenes, have sunken into the darkness. To quantify the six years HEALTH have taken between Get Color and Death Magic, bassist John Famiglietti amusingly stated in an interview with Pitchfork, “Witch house came and went”. Even bands from the LA Smell Scene, from which HEALTH emerged, have died slow and protracted deaths.
HEALTH — Death Magic (Echo)Some time during the six years since HEALTH put out Get Color, a funny thing happened to the band who’s most accessible song (barring remixes) used to sound like this. The sound there, the insistent beats, somehow shredded melodic elements, thickly electronic walls of sound, isn’t radically changed on Death Magic, but the structure sometimes is. When you listen to older material like “Die Slow” it might be hard to imagine how a band that diffusively abrasive would go anthemic, but, well, here we are.Death Magic is HEALTH at its most direct, most forthright.
In a surprising turn in HEALTH’s niche-noise career, the band have gone totally danceable for the long-awaited Death Magic. The L.A. group’s harsh, turbulent sound is still there—tracks wracked with punishing beats, squealing synths and guitars. But songs like “L.A. Looks” and “Flesh ….
The hallmarks of HEALTH’s sound are unmistakable: gleaming shards of sawtooth oscillation stabbing out from dark silence, synths buzzing like swarms of cicadas, the whole band resonating as if inside a gong. On their first two records, they arranged these sounds like guerrilla tacticians, continually assaulting, disarming and surprising the listener, and sounding like no other band while doing so. On Death Magic, these moments are fleeting, and without them, HEALTH sound like a lot of other bands.
The noisemongering L.A. act HEALTH has, historically, not brought out the best in music critics. Reviews of Get Color and the band’s two remix records, both titled Disco, seem to have practically written themselves; there is probably no place in contemporary music criticism can one more dependably locate all the possible variations of the phrase, “They’re [insert non-pop genre], but they’re really pop at heart!” than in reviews of HEALTH records.