Review Summary: "Death Magic" sometimes struggles with an identity crisis, but is mostly a stellar progression on from "Get Color."
HEALTH's fantastic 2012 soundtrack, to Rockstar's third instalment of Max Payne, may not be a proper
album - and it would mark it as six long years since the band released its sophomore album, Get Color
- but it's a release from the band that has left a lasting impression on their sound and approach to their music. It's clear they gained varying degrees of experience from Max Payne 3; their approach to production; and a heighten emotional roller coster of melancholy, atmosphere and macbre are all focused elements that have been carried over to HEALTH's third outing, Death Magic
was a much more accessible sound to their debut, and fans may be surprised to find that Death Magic
's tight-nit arrangments and pop like structures are a descent further into the mainstream; so if you weren't massive on the direction the band took post debut, you might find little to grab you here. It's a few steps down from the free-flowing, structureless compositions of the debut. The album has the tenacious habit of feeling like it was written to draw in a wider audience; this isn't so much a criticism, when it's done right - and most of the time it is - but occasionally Death Magic
can feel like it's lacking focus: "Flesh World (UK), "L.A. Looks" and "Life" suffer from deviating a little too far from the band's core sound, bringing generic nightclub pumping electronics and feel good pop choruses to the forefront. These sound diversions would have been okay additions to the album's cannon, but the tracks in question lack any character or personality; with the heavy synth sound saturating most of the play-time, little else is going on underneath it: minimalistic drums, repetitive electronic beats and a desperate lack of guitar - which would have been worthwhile here - make the songs suffer. While Jake's vocals and lyrics struggle to hold water, like the rest of the album, and quickly become a bore.
The biggest disappointment from the aforementioned tracks is that it stains the flow of Death Magic
. The rest of the album does an incredible job of being both tonally consistent and securing a middle ground; the perfect balance to tracks that maintain the atmospheric melancholy, that they do so well, and condensing it into an even easier listening experience. The album's singles "New Coke" and "Stonefist" master the balance perfectly; bringing the easy listening elements to the front, while surrounding it in the familiar signature sound HEALTH have been crafting over the years. Songs like "Dark Enough" and "Courtship II" are easy and enjoyable for those looking for it, but ultimately they cater to both sides of the fanbase; the tracks still contain the foundations from any of HEALTH's previous works: drowned in the depressive atmospherics that hypnotize the listener, while equally managing to incorporate the drum heavy sound of previous works. It's also these kind of songs where composing for Rockstar has really paid off, with so many layers and undertones to try and pick out from each listen of the tracks.
It's in the albums last couple of tracks where Death Magic
flourishes though. "Hurt Yourself" is easily one of the strongest tracks on the album and successfully manages to payoff with everything the band have been experimenting with; from its opening seconds it begins to build on the foundations of an epic Hollywood sound: soaring, spacey vocals and blistering drums that toy with you as the song expands and shrinks; synths subtly build, swelling bigger until it bursts into its wall-crushing climax. The same qualities are found on the albums closing track "Drugs Exist", which showcase the band's brilliant ability at create exciting, atmospheric build-ups, with bucket loads of layers laden underneath. It's just a great way to close the album.
Overall, when HEALTH get the formula right it's easily the best work they've ever forged. But because of the way the weaker songs are placed in the albums tracklist, it disrupts a lot of momentum; even with the overly pop orientated tracks taken out of the equation the band throw some really experimental tracks into the mix as well, in the form of "Men Day" and "Salvia", and unfortunately they also clash with the middle ground material dominating on here. Death Magic
is at its best when it's not consciously trying to appeal to old fans or new and just does what it feels is right. For better or worse it is an extremely enjoyable LP, albeit not without a couple of stumbles along the way.