The Los Angeles four-piece noise rock band Health first gained widespread recognition upon the release of Crystal Castle’s 2007 remix of their song Crimewave. That remix appeared on Crystal Castle’s groundbreaking, incredible debut record, and placed them alongside Health right at the crest of the then-burgeoning electronic punk scene. Accompanied by peers such as Salem, Grimes, Purity Ring, and oOoOO, Crystal Castles and Health pioneered an amalgam of traditional electronic production elements and instrumentation with abrasive experimental rock flourishes, often devolving what otherwise could have been pretty songs into deafening, chaotic roars.
Health’s debut album came in the form of their 2007 self-titled, recorded in the extraordinarily un-acoustic and yet atmosphere-drenched cult L.A. noise club The Smell. Of the recording process, bassist John Famiglietti told Impose Magazine:
“[The Smell] completely changes the tone of anything you want to record; makes a lot of things dark and beautiful. It also makes everything sound like ‘CLANG!’ We didn’t realize how hard it would be at all.”
A highly-regarded collection of remixes of songs from the self-titled record, outsourced from various talented third-party acts, followed. Soon, Health landed a stint opening for Nine Inch Nails, and recorded their second album Get Color, a fantastic suite of songs which improved upon Health's formula and - while featuring less wild noise freak-outs - maintained the band’s trademark menacing sense of aggressive force packed into bite-sized electronic mayhem.
A second remix album of tracks from Get Color came next, followed by Health's much-lauded brooding soundtrack to the 2012 video-game Max Payne 3. A proper studio album to follow up Get Color has been six years in the making, during which the scene they were once an integral part of has changed immeasurably; on Death Magic, Health return in fine form.
Opening with the pounding drums, spacey synthesiser squalls, and darkly ominous chanting of Victim, Death Magic is a half-dreamt journey through an industrial wasteland, populated only by a lone derelict warehouse, way out there in the night; a dark shell filled with lost, used, and abused wayward youth. Deafening chaos blares from a towering speaker system, as in the strobe-lit mayhem bodies churn and endless eyes glaze over. On Death Magic, Health use their invaluable experience from creating an acclaimed soundtrack to paint more vivid pictures and evoke more defined emotions than on previous releases; this is powerful music.
Lead single Men Today opens with galloping drums and explosive bursts of static, clearly recalling the sound of the band’s debut as downcast, melodic vocals echo out in the spaces between bursts of rage. Like most Health songs, on Men Today the band always seem to be fighting against the music rather than creating it; battling uphill against an irrepressible demonic force that always gets the better of them, trying to tame something far beyond their control. Likewise, second single New Coke is set to a brash, rushing tempo, where rave drums right out of the Roland TR–909 era push frantically onward, propelling monotone singing to the foreground, where lyrics are often lost to the instrumental storm.
Though every member of Health multitasks from time to time, singing duties are largely handled by guitarist Jake Duzsik (formerly a medical historian), and usually appear in heavily-effected, altered form. Health have traditionally and unusually regarded vocals as being simply another instrument in the mix, not a focal point, and the band have previously described their lyrics as being “purposefully kept vague for the listener,” describing their approach to voice as such:
“[Lyrics] sort of begin to bring out this more individual quality to the whole thing like, ‘These are the lyrics, and this is the guy is singing them, so I can relate to that.’ Which is really not something we want. We wanted the vocals to have an even, unaffected feel. A softness, like a Zombies melody, or even a Gregorian chant. We aren’t just interested in being a noisy screaming band.”
On New Coke, there are rare moments of clarity amidst the pounding rush of the track. “Let the guns go off/ Let the bombs explode/ Let the lights go dark/ Life is good,” goes the opening refrain of the track, before a bombastic blast of distortion swallows the melody whole. It’s an effective format, where the lyrics are presented as though Duzsik is numb from the neck down while energetic, manic chaos swells around him, the music constantly verging on drowning him, and occasionally doing it.
The songs on Death Magic are of a remarkably consistent calibre when Health approach the music from their most unique angle. Stonefist is a particular highlight, balancing a catchy hook deftly alongside the Downward Spiral-style alternately techno/industrial metal backdrop. “We stay possessed by what we lust/ And we both know, love’s not in our hearts,” goes the quietly sung refrain, as legitimate pop potential and well-honed experimental song-craft collide with spectacular results. Even at their most confronting, Health manage the enviable task of making inherently inaccessible musical stylings somehow just accessible enough that their songs can potentially appeal to a wider audience than that of many of their contemporaries.
The ghosts of ’80s new wave electronic heavyweights like Depeche Mode stalk through many of these tracks, lending a throwback and somewhat-commercial air to the otherwise wholly forward-thinking noise rock experimentalism. The sonic blueprint first sketched on tracks like Personal Jesus and handed down through Nine Inch Nails cuts like Closer has been pitted alongside industrial music before; Trent Reznor himself consistently utilised this stark contrast as he moved song-to-song throughout the ’90s. Yet Health have a particular knack for creating a bizarre, rewarding juxtaposition by combining synthesiser-driven beats and melodies with the din of shoegaze-meets-Swans guitar brute force and Duzsik’s wide-eyed lucid-dream musings, all within the same song.
Life is one of the few more-or-less-straight-ahead pop tunes on the record, and it largely comes across as twee, saccharine, and altogether less inventive than Health’s usual material. Life and the similarly ineffectual L.A. Looks serve as exemplars of just how well Health’s usual template works for them, and why playing to their genre-melding strengths is almost always the best course of action. However, on Death Magic, there is little time to be concerned about the change of direction apparently signaled by Life: follow-up track Salvia is as fine a two minute burst of rage as Health have ever recorded; blisteringly fast machine gun drum passages interspersed with jarring shifts into ambient synthesiser bliss, destined never to last.
Penultimate track Hurt Yourself is great proof that Health can successfully make slow, melodic, meditative songs; though waves of noise constantly rise and fall on the sonic periphery, the centrepiece of the track is undoubtedly Duzsik’s voice, as he muses hopelessly while the intensity of the music gradually builds. Meanwhile, closer Drugs Exist is perhaps the most beautiful song the band have crafted yet. It is four minutes of sublime, deconstructed synthpop, set to slowly echoing drums and choral synths that rise and rise and rise before the album is closed with a minute or so of almost ambient echoes, endlessly spiraling off into some unseen but very real expanse of darkness, way out there beyond the warehouse rave, into the night and the pain of tomorrow.
While Death Magic is not Health’s most inventive album, and nor is it the band’s most immediately gripping release, it is perhaps the finest melding of all their strengths into a cohesive project. While not without missteps - Health’s flirtations with commercial pop music will only get them so far - Death Magic is a fascinating album. Toning down the abrasive niche noise of earlier releases and confidently paying more attention to song structure, melody, and recording quality, the band have emerged from hibernation and crafted a great collection of songs. Unashamedly loud, emotional, powerful punk for the modern age, on Death Magic these modern alchemists cast a powerful spell.
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