After two albums and a stint scoring the soundtrack to Rockstar’s hit game Max Payne 3, LA based noisemakers HEALTH have returned with DEATH MAGIC, their first record in six years. In that gap, a lot has changed in music and, for HEALTH, the time off is immediately apparent.
Gone are the pummeling, lo-fi drums and the walls of noise that masked monotone melodies. Unfortunately, so is most of the unpredictable excitement that accompanied these elements. In its place, DEATH MAGIC offers gloss, pounding drum machines, sparkling, up front vocals and oceans of reverb. Most notably, almost every song has the structure and melody of radio pop, with many tracks working just as well on the dance floor.
Of course, all of this is dipped in a thick layer of industrial sludge, as if NIN, Depeche Mode and at times even Pet Shop Boys or Rihanna’s writers came together to generate songs for the HEALTH.
This is what’s strange about DEATH MAGIC: it hardly sounds like the same band, and most similarities are merely surface textures or the occasional and obligatory squawk of feedback. Whenever there is a burst of noise, it’s sure to be accompanied by a thumping kick or the iconic clap of an 808 in a desperate attempt to keep toes tapping.
After the minimal opener of “VICTIM,” “STONEFIST” sets the tone of the album with a persistent beat and a memorable, melodic chorus. Unfortunately, the same handful of notes make up the melody of “FLESH WORLD (UK),” an upbeat 80’s number that relies on nihilistic lyrics and a dark chorus to maintain its sense of cool, which, to some extent, it does.
“Follow your lust/There’s no one here to judge us/Do all the drugs/We die, so what” is great the first time around, but as the record progresses, it becomes painfully clear that the band are relying on these themes just to get a reaction.
When it comes to pop music, trite lyrics are to be expected, but it still comes as a surprise when it’s from a band whose previous efforts have consisted of scattered abstract musings hidden behind feedback and reverb. The overt synth-pop of “L.A. LOOKS” is a serious offender with lines like “I want another life/I want to try again/I want another chance” and “It’s not love/But I still want you.” These would normally work with a proper set up or some insight to make it believable, but most of the lyrics on DEATH MAGIC sound like they were ripped from the pages of an “edgy” 15 year old’s Hot Topic diary. After the umpteenth mention of hearts, drugs, death and lines that begin with “Life is___,” the formulas become clear, the processed vocal melodies redundant and the dynamic breaks are expected rather than dramatic. Don’t even get me started on the “promises we broke” and the overuse of the word “hurt.” This is a shame, as there are a handful of lines that work well without sounding forced.
Thankfully, “MEN TODAY” and “COURTSHIP II” bring back some signature traits of the band, with rolling, tribal toms and dramatic, screechy shifts in time and dynamics. “SALVIA” shows just how much they learned from scoring the video game “Max Payne 3”, with an aggressive beat and a creepy ambiences. With no vocals and a runtime of less than two minutes, it is easily overshadowed by the obnoxiously poppy “LIFE” before it and lead single “NEW COKE” immediately after.
To be fair, most of the noise and distortion of the band is evident throughout the album, but it’s been shaped into your average atmospherics, intros/outros and textures that have been floating around electronic music for the past decade. On DEATH MAGIC, the screeches and clangs aren’t quite innocuous, but they’ve been pushed to the back by the stellar production to make room for the rather bland songs, making points of interest few and far between.
This is not to say their previous albums have been flawless–after a barrage of noise, it’s nice to get a good melody or familiar chord change, but 09’s GET COLOR made sure to have those pleasantries on tap.
On one hand, I could praise the cohesion of the record, but that’s because most everything on DEATH MAGIC sounds the same. I could applaud the band for taking a chance, trying new things and heading in a new direction, but unfortunately, this path has been tread many times over.
The new-found sounds and structures are only new for the band, as the darker side of dance music has been thriving on these same tunes for the past five years. That said, the musicianship is still solid, the production top notch and the songs, while a bit boring, are still generally fun, catchy and well put together. I’m curious to see how they evolve in a live setting when played alongside older material.
Tracks from DEATH MAGIC should be nice in small doses, acting as a break from the noise and insanity, but as a whole, the record quickly becomes tedious, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it did well at festivals, made it into an angst-y teen horror flick or even found regular rotation in some of the cooler, gloomier dance clubs here in Los Angeles.