[Loma Vista; 2015]
When HEALTH first started, they were noise-art to the extreme. If you want to test someone’s intestinal fortitude, put on that self-titled debut, turn it up as high as you can without bursting eardrums, and sit back to face the carnage. The drums were tribal bedlam. The guitars were shattering dissonance. The synths were icicles, sending chills down your spine. But amidst all this chaos, Jacob Duzsik’s vocals eerily sang vaporous melodies like a deceased choirboy stuck in limbo. Despite all the madness, the vocals represented the deus ex machine, keeping the sputtering tank from crushing over mankind.
The remix album DISCO that came out a year later helped expose the band’s serene little secret. While I prefer the debut to its remix predecessor, that album gave hints toward what this band could possibly sound like going forward. 2009’s Get Color stayed true to their initial style, although it featured moments of pop sensibility, and once again, the remix album that coincided with it even further revealed the melodies buried under the violent synths.
Keeping this history in mind, the fact that 2015’s Death Magic is at its core a pop album shouldn’t be as jarring as it has been to longtime HEALTH fans. The album still features some of the same moments of turmoil, but Duzsik’s vocals are much more prevalent. The animalistic drums of old are, for the most part, replaced with drum-machined EDM rhythms better suited for a dance club than a sacrificial fire dance. The synths can still send shocking jolts, but they are more likely to create a soothing backdrop to the memorable hooks than add to the disorientation. It’s pretty shocking to hear a band that once drew inspiration from the experimental wanderings of the Boredoms now sounding more like Depeche Mode than anything from the world of no wave. “Life” might be the most un-HEALTHy song to date with its cheery disposition, radio friendly hook, and life-affirming lyrics.
But for anyone thinking HEALTH has sold out to the mainstream, be assured that the masses would be taken aback by the vicious assault that lurks in the pop shadows, waiting to trounce. “Men Today” could easily sit alongside the band’s early work with its manic intro, but unlike the past where the assault is ceaseless, the band has evolved and found ways to create dips and counter balances to the torrential downpour. The album’s best moments are when this shift in mood is done seamlessly, moving from a gently flowing river, to raging rapids without any warning.
HEALTH has also matured when it comes to lyrics. In the past, the lyrics seemed inconsequential to the more attention grabbing theatrics of the music, but Death Magic focuses on the realities of dealing with and facing death. On “Life” Duzsik contemplates “Life is strange/ we die and we don’t know why.” Other tracks echo this helpless feeling of fear and loss, but there are also moments of strangely reaffirming messages. On “New Coke,” Duzsik goes from “we’ll be gone before we know it” to “Life is good” in only a few lines. In combination with the sweaty, ominous house music that propels the album, Death Magic is a drug-infused rave for those who would rather relish the joy of living than spend their short time on earth fearing the negative. I’m sure old school fans will balk at the band’s more accessible approach, but life’s too short to cater to the haters.