HEALTH Death Magic

[Loma Vista; 2015]

Styles: flitting rapidly between electro noise-punk and synth pop
Others: HEALTH past, present and (all possible)future(s)

Comics luminary Grant Morrison began his franchise-revitalizing run on X-Men by introducing us to a nest of feral sentinels. Designed to hunt and kill mutant-kind, the machines had been abandoned in the Ecuadorian wilderness, where they slowly began to adapt and evolve, incorporating scraps and materials from their environment into their own chassis in order to survive and propagate their “species.” The design of these machines (rendered in exquisite detail by the peerless Frank Quietly) has always stuck with me. They looked at once advanced and disquietingly primitive: sci-fi future tech that had become infected with the savagery of its surroundings.

The so-called “wild sentinels” are as appropriate a visual metaphor for L.A.’s HEALTH as I can muster. The music captured by their first two albums was governed by a cruel symmetry, with songs unfolding according to a logic alien to that of the traditional four-minute radio rock song. Their heavily processed guitars and homemade electronics (the fabled “zoothorn”) further lent their work a chilly, futuristic sheen. Yet parallel to these robotic elements ran an animal streak. BJ Miller’s thunderous drums and the violent outbursts of formless noise disrupted the mood of mechanistic control. One could listen to HEALTH at their most unhinged and imagine a world where the terminators had succeeded in eradicating the last remnants of humanity only to turn on one another.

In the intervening six(!) years, we’ve gotten glimpses into the shape that their third album might take, doled out with all the exquisite slowness of one of those masochistic 30-minute edging videos. The tendencies revealed in those fragments have been toward melody, but also grandiosity. Songs like “Tears” off the Max Payne 3 soundtrack or their cover of “Goth Star” were not only prettier than anything that had preceded them, but also sounded immense. With those tracks as a template, I’d come to expect Death Magic to arrive as a beautiful cataclysm.

Yet the actual album is a far more mottled beast. Even given the delicate balancing act of dissonance and accessibility that characterizes previous releases, the contents of Death Magic seem polarized. There are songs that would have fit seamlessly onto Get Color, songs that would have sounded saccharine next to the weakest offerings from its remix record, Disco2, and songs that move in exciting directions never before hinted at. Album opener “Victim,” for instance, spends over half of its two-minute runtime assembling a crawling drone before resolving into an eerie melody that recalls Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” Fans of the group have likely already heard “New Coke,” which cashes in on its grand buildup with a dubsteppy drop (the dubstep influence creeps in again later, although with diminished results, on “Hurt Yourself”). But probably the best song on the album is the one that hews closest to their tried and true methods. “Stonefist” is a bad trip on the dance floor fully in the vein of “Die Slow,” with a strobing electronic beat trampling over strains of metallic guitar.

The least encouraging offerings on display are HEALTH’s ventures into pure pop. Back-to-back bubblegum tracks “Dark Enough” and “Life” represent the band’s most straightforward songwriting and presentation to date. In and of itself, that’s not an awful thing. “USA Boys” was a pop song, too, but one that had been filtered through the warped conceptual lens of a bunch of noise punks. The problem with the aforementioned tracks is that they feel more like the effort of some faceless indie pop outfit to reverse engineer a HEALTH song. Jake Duzsik’s lyrics, for once not only decipherable but also crystal clear, don’t help, either. The most forgettable soccer-mom rock bands of the late 90s would have blushed to write a line as sappy as “Doesn’t make a difference how I feel/ As long as I come back to you,” or “Life is strange/ We die/ And we don’t know why.”

Getting to talk about lyrics on a HEALTH album is a somewhat novel concept, since up until now Duzsik’s vocals have been purposefully blurred as a means of de-personalizing content. The approach helped thicken the sense of mystique around the group, the lack of a clear POV giving them an almost godlike, omniscient voice. That sense of detachment continues to hold up nicely in places, perhaps nowhere better than on “New Coke,” with its haunting opening verse “Let the guns go off/ Let the bombs explode/ Let the lights go dark/ Life is good.” Many of the songs part too readily with this posture, however, and as a result are stripped of their mystery. The word “love” shows up in at least eight of the twelve songs. It’s never been a taboo topic for the group, but the love they spoke of previously suggested a thing terrible to behold. When they commanded their audience “You will love each other,” it felt more like a threat than anything else. But while Duzsik’s lyrics continue to harbor a greater sense of ambivalence over romantic love than a cursory listen might suggest, the mundanity of empty relationships and carnal lust seems out of place here.

Still, there might be some hope for this brighter, sunnier direction HEALTH is exploring. “L.A. Looks” is every ounce the summer barbecue jam that many of its contemporaries are trying to evoke, right down to the lovelorn chorus. But it also boasts one of the album’s strongest hooks, and the grinding guitar(?) solo that closes the song out is a small good thing that reminds you just how masterful these guys are when it comes to sculpting sound.

While HEALTH and Get Color were cohesive collections of songs that created a snapshot in time of where the artists were when creating them, listening to Death Magic feels like we’re seeing not just the band they are currently, but all the bands they could be. Some of those bands are familiar, some of them promising, and some of them bleak cautionary tales, like Community’s darkest timeline (or pretty much its entire sixth season on Yahoo; what a shitshow that turned into). The good stuff on this album outweighs the bad by a comfortable margin, but the bad is show-stopping enough to give one pause. For the first time, I find myself looking to the future and wondering if, given enough time, those wild sentinels wouldn’t have eventually quit the jungle, moved out to the suburbs, and gotten jobs working in advertising.

Links: HEALTH - Loma Vista

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