The past 15 years or so have seen video games evolve from crude tests of hand-eye coordination for sedentary children into something approaching an “art” form. With this growth in visual sophistication and narrative complexity, it’s only natural that game developers should strive for their soundtracks to meet the same standards of maturity and seek out talent that can take the aural content of their game to the next level. While HEALTH might seem like an odd choice to score such a high-profile release, given their relative commercial obscurity, their status as noise-punk auteurs makes their selection seem, in retrospect, almost inevitable. I can’t help but think back to the late 90s when ID software called upon Trent Reznor to create the music and sound effects for the original Quake; like Nine Inch Nails, HEALTH is a singular act with its own sonic vocabulary.
Of course, the “noise punk” classification that the L.A. quartet wore so comfortably for their first couple of releases seems a little ill-fitting these days. While still punk in spirit and unquestionably noisy in execution, the handful of tracks that HEALTH has eked out since 2009’s Get Color have tended towards grander, more ethereal textures. If HEALTH’s early records sounded like, as one commentator put it, “the sound of robots fucking,” songs like “Drugs Beach,” “USA Boys,” and “Tears” (the only proper HEALTH “song” featured on the Max Payne 3 soundtrack) sound like robots being ushered before the throne of judgment.
These twin tendencies toward melody and majesty inform much of the soundtrack. Quite a few of the selections here make use of wordless vocal washes to lend the proceedings a sense of almost supernatural awe. Despite the neo-noir conceits behind the Max Payne franchise, the soundtrack’s closest relatives seem to be in the realm of sci-fi. The stuttering synth line that forms the rhythmic backbone of “Shells” and the humming bass pulse on “Dead” call to mind Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner, while some of the more energetic tracks like “Guns” and “Combat Drugs” draw from the metallic textures of Brad Fiedel’s work on the Terminator series (although it’s worth noting that those are two particularly noir-ish works of science fiction). The band’s heavy reliance on warm, retro-futurist synth textures and processed vocal harmonies help to suffuse even the most exuberant fight-scene accompaniments with a tangible sense of melancholy, a note of tragedy throbbing underneath a pervasive atmosphere of violence. A fitting choice, given the history of the series’ titular character.
But if I may return to my initial musings on video games, I would point out that, while the industry has produced works of artistic merit, its biggest hurdle towards achieving its full creative potential is its audience. Certainly a broader spectrum of people are gaming now than when I was a kid, but the demographic that drives the market hardest is still teenage boys, hence the reason why a disproportionate percentage of the games produced every year require players to shoot, hack, or pummel their way through some chaotic pubescent fantasy-scape. If there’s one weakness to the Max Payne 3 soundtrack, it’s that, at the end of the day, the music here has to be unobtrusive enough that players can listen to it on repeat for hours while they massacre a lot of people. This puts some notable constraints around the group. Drummer BJ Miller, whose tribal beats provide the propulsive force to the soundtrack’s action sequences, feels particularly straightjacketed at times, unable to affect the kind of rapid tempo shifts and about-faces that we’ve grown used to in the band’s oeuvre.
So, while HEALTH manage to put their distinctive mark on Max Payne 3’s soundtrack, creating vivid and at times evocative compositions from the contents of their own unique sonic toolkit, they come short of meaningfully reinventing the video game soundtrack as we know it. But obviously that’s too much to expect to begin with. It’s enough that the score to a video game — traditionally considered little more than an afterthought in the grand scheme of development — offers up so many moments that stand powerfully on their own while still coming together to form a coherent whole.