HEALTH's characteristic noise is upended by obscured pop aesthetics on their first LP in six years.
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.
On the enigmatic Death Magic, their third full-length record after a six-year hiatus from the format, the balance has shifted from grinding, distorted instruments in favor of the band’s obscured pop abstractions. The gentle melodies hidden in the buzzing, murky feedback of their early records for once emerges to the surface of those mechanical depths to become the focus. The result is an entirely new array of textures available to the band capable of broadening the scope of their melodic noise. Death Magic lets HEALTH explore more conventional realms of music previously out of reach; now, at their most immediate (“STONEFIST”, “LIFE”), the band take on a kind of industrialized Pet Shop Boys essence and, in the album’s headier, more ambient moments, the dense celestial haze of classic shoegaze records. Moved away from the relentless clatter of their first two albums, the band allow themselves more opportunities for dynamic leaps as well, used to profound effect in songs like “COURTSHIP II” and “MEN TODAY” through intermittent outbursts of black metal blast beats and impenetrable walls of feedback. Conventional wisdom insists that artists who move in a more pop-informed direction only limit themselves by doing so, fencing themselves into a corner of generic non-identity; such is not the case with the more open and expressive version of HEALTH on Death Magic.
Remarkably, the band maintain a familiarity in their new sonic wardrobe as well. Fans will instantly recognize the violent fireworks of distortion that kick the album into gear on “STONEFIST” after the brief, theatrical intro, “VICTIM”, even as they fade into the ethereal pop realms that dominate the album. The grinding industrial beat pulsing through “FLESH WORLD (UK)” may collide into an empowering melodic hook, but it’s still twisted enough to bring to mind Get Color’s harsh and grimy pop sound. Even the band’s vomit-filled video for pre-release single “NEW COKE” affirmed their commitment to remaining as remote and aesthetically inaccessible as possible.
This doesn’t make the band’s new enchantments any less divisive, though. “L.A. LOOKS” starts off with chattering synths that would fit perfectly in a Passion Pit song, “LIFE” has a four-on-the-floor beat and druggy melodies that essentially turn it into an indie dancefloor jam, and even the shroud of abstract samples backing up “DRUGS EXIST” don’t drive focus away from its bouncy keyboards and hip-hop beat. These are the fluorescent, gaudy sounds that listeners of noise and experimental music often harbor great hostility for, but at the same time, it’s a totally understandable evolution for HEALTH, who’ve always had pop aesthetics channeling in the background of their music. It shouldn’t be understated how unusual an album Death Magic is, either; for once, the band’s chemistry between melody and noise is the driving force of their sound, and for every beautiful moment that pops out of the record, there’s another disturbing or uncomfortable one to match it. Death Magic is decidedly not “HEALTH goes pop”; it’s more, “HEALTH recalibrates their already irreverent style”. Perhaps that’s a minor distinction, but it is an important one.