health

In one telling exchange from last month’s Loud And Quiet cover feature, HEALTH talked about the emasculating experience of having released two records of visceral, art-damaged experimental rock, only to find that on record at least – thanks to high-end production values – chart music still sounds more ballsy than their own. As bassist John Famiglietti put it: “Some pop star chick’s song is kicking our ass!”

Couched within this context, ‘Death Magic’ – the first proper release from the cultish Los Angeles foursome since 2009’s ‘Get Color’ – doesn’t so much represent an abandonment of the group’s hitherto Boredoms-influenced noise aesthetic so much as it does a burning desire to craft a confrontational pop album; a sonic Trojan horse and a giant “fuck you” to radio-friendly major label acts. Of course, HEALTH first started down this path with ‘Die Slow’, a synth banger jarring conspicuously with the rest of ‘Get Color’ and its abrasive skronk. Yet where that track was something of a red herring back then, six years later the band have finally followed up on its promise.

Nine of the twelve tracks on ‘Death Magic’ can be triangulated between Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails and some variation of contemporary European dance music, the precise coordinates depending on the song. Throughout each, Jake Duzsik sings with a breathy, disarmingly sweet voice not dissimilar to Neil Tennant, his vocals finally brought to the fore even as they’re warped and pitch-shifted all over the place.

Trap-aping lead single ‘New Coke’ is a danceable racket – all serrated-edge guitar and electronics – but closing ballad couplet ‘Hurt Yourself’ and ‘Drugs Exist’ are smooth enough to slot right into the Skins soundtrack. Look beneath the surface though and for all their shimmer, songs like ‘Dark Enough’ (“Doesn’t make a difference if it’s real / As long as I still say I love you”) and ‘LA. Looks’ (“It’s not love but I still want you”) betray the kind of emotional self-conflict that goes well beyond teenage angst.

There are three stylistic holdovers from HEALTH’s less melodious days, each one impaling like a broken bottle on the dancefloor. ‘Men Today’ and ‘Courtship II’ recall the cathartic, noisy abandon of old, while ‘Salvia’ springs into life with a frenzied machine gun drumroll before collapsing into a mush of ambient pads. Having seen the band live though, the sense is these work better as spectacles on stage, rather than incongruously slotted into an album otherwise so focused on song craft.

So what are HEALTH nowadays, then? Noisy pop band? Danceable noise outfit? No idea. They don’t need to worry about taking an ass-kicking any more, though.

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