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. The Los Angeles-based noise rockers made a reputation in the late ‘00s off remixes that sawed off the pretty parts of songs and sanded them down to a blistering, bloody edge that was beautiful in its own relentless pursuit of a perfect white noise. Their albums were wild beasts that railed against the limits of their own equipment and surged far past them; the band’s use of what they called a “Zoothorn,” or a microphone run through an effects pedal and into a guitar amp, created something that simultaneously established a distinct sound for the band while obfuscating any sort of clear vocal identity. For HEALTH, the aesthetic was often more important than the song itself. In their last released effort, the soundtrack to 2013’s Max Payne 3
video game, the aesthetic was the song.
Six years in a gestation that seemed uncertain in both length and direction, Death Magic
finally arrives as a logical progression for a band that always had a pop heart buried under all the scuzz, black and festering though it may be. The core of despair that haunted their earlier work mostly shows up here in song titles like “Dark Enough,” “Salvia,” and “Hurt Yourself,” but on repeated listens it’s hard to ignore the dead-eyed detachment with which singer Jake Duzsik sings, “let the guns go off / let the bombs explode / let the lights go dark / life is good” on first single “New Coke.” Duzsik is the most prominent change, his vocals more recognizable than ever, a shimmery presence on top of the layers of industrial murk and pistoning riffs. The effect is reminiscent of a more sedated, crystallized Brian Aubert of Silversun Pickups, a piercing lightness that floats over the production rather than directs it any which way. It’s a smart choice – Death Magic
remains largely under the purview of its churning, pummeling band, but Duzsik’s lighthouse of a voice keeps things centered firmly in pop territory.
Placing HEALTH and “pop territory” in the same sentence may cause a double take, but as abrasive and cold as the production here can be, HEALTH have always placed their faith in their ability to groove, and Death Magic
is no exception. “Stonefist” marches forward on a beat meant to grind you into dust with its mindless pulse, but it breaks apart and reassembles in pleasantly lilting half-steps. “Flesh World (UK”) is straight techno bliss, picking up steam with an ear worm of a chorus that features a delightfully angular squawk of guitar noise casting a serrated shadow in the disco. Other tracks like “Dark Enough” and “Life” are borderline bubblegum, the sparkling motif on the latter sounding nearly triumphant. The electro-pop glitter of “L.A. Looks” sound like the band tipping their cap to the departed Crystal Castles, whose “Crimewave” gave them a canvas to remix and launch their career way back in 2007. The band’s songwriting craft, always strong yet purposely cloaked, is pushed to the forefront.
That’s not to say the band have lost their edge. The hectic rush of “Men Today” throws the traditional structure of “Stonefist” into disarray and comes and goes like a squall, certainly marking one of the few times I will enjoy blast beats unironically. “New Coke” strikes the best balance between the group’s more melodically inclined bent and their penchant for creative sound design, the eventual drop making a fair approximation of what it must sound like to stand inside a hangar while a jetliner takes off. The record’s flow could do without the machine-gun sound collage of “Salvia” and the lackluster “Hurt Yourself,” a throwaway imitation of earlier highs, but as a whole Death Magic
takes a sound that could have felt played out and injects some vitality into it. The hooks may be brighter than ever, but the band’s inherent nihilism remains seething under the surface, Duzsik’s vocals the ideal vacant expression of every apathetic and tranquilized adult stumbling through nameless bars and blurry years. In his lyrics, Duzsik emphasizes a sort of bleary aimlessness, but HEALTH have never sounded as focused as they do here. These are sounds that will grab you by the hair and drag you where you need to go. It’s control of a potentially unpleasant, entirely intoxicating sort.