HEALTH's 'Death Magic', Reviewed

'Death Magic' works in four-minute increments only.
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'Death Magic' works in four-minute increments only.
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The noisemongering L.A. act HEALTH has, historically, not brought out the best in music critics. Reviews of Get Color and the band’s two remix records, both titled Disco, seem to have practically written themselves; there is probably no place in contemporary music criticism can one more dependably locate all the possible variations of the phrase, “They’re [insert non-pop genre], but they’re really pop at heart!” than in reviews of HEALTH records. That this insight turns on the conjunction “but” speaks to its general meaninglessness in this context, since the real fallacy is to suppose that HEALTH have ever been reasonably committed to generic distinctions in the first place. Now, third full-length (fourth if we count the Max Payne video game soundtrack, sixth if we count Disco and its sequel) Death Magic is being positioned as the conclusive development in a noise-to-pop trajectory, but when I look for evidence of this in the band’s actual discography, I come up empty-handed. The 2007 self-titled debut LP is certainly the band’s most willfully abstract work, but it’s firmly rooted in familiar musical procedures like melody and rhythmic groove; it’s similar to the stuff their erstwhile co-Angelenos Liars were turning out half a decade prior, yet nowhere near as antagonistic. Moreover, HEALTH is far from the band’s most abrasive, that is to say, most extremely noisy effort — indeed, that honor goes to Death Magic.

Perhaps it’d be better to say that HEALTH’s generic identification or lack thereof is utilitarian: they’re motivated by effect above all. HEALTH’s only apparent priority is to make the most viscerally immediate music technologically and humanly possible. In this respect, their best contemporary point of comparison is none of the most-cited names — Liars, Container, Trust, Holy Fuck, Fuck Buttons, former collaborators Crystal Castles — but rather the Big Pink, or better still Sleigh Bells, another band whose M.O. consists of putting metal, noise, unimaginative beat programming, and chart-friendly pop under immense pressure until they fuse ecstatically into diamond-hard platonic ideals of loudness. HEALTH’s sound is constructed from elements that are intense and simple, so if earworm melodies grip us in a different way but to the same degree as face-melting blasts of noise, why not combine the two? It can’t be a coincidence that the “HEALTH goes pop” narrative is founded largely on recent interviews wherein the band’s members have sung the praises of Top 40 hits by Katy Perry and Rihanna: Perry’s utter lack of subtlety or volume control and Rihanna’s piercing, siren-like pipes are better analogues for what HEALTH do than any of the American noise scene’s current movers and shakers. Like Perry and Rihanna, HEALTH seek to insinuate themselves into our lives melodically and bulldoze over the competition dynamically.

And on that count, Death Magic is a success. It’s been a minute — Fuck Buttons’ Slow Focus is the most recent instance I can recall — since a record targeted the listener’s aural pleasure centers with such precision and then pulverized them so methodically. These are huge songs, and that can sometimes obscure their mathematical calculation: listening to single “Stonefist” may be the aural equivalent to being hit by a truck, but its soggy common-time drum track thwacks away mechanically and without mercy. The dancefloor-baiting “Flesh World (UK)” pushes its BPM just slightly beyond the comfortable margin, so that the band simultaneously seduces us with the signifiers of Violator-era death disco and torments us with the frenetic pacing; it’s like being on a treadmill set to too fast a speed. Album centerpiece “Life” is a sparkling anthem tuned so far into the red that its positively qualities seem like cruel mirages glimpsed briefly through the eardrum-ripping static.

None of the analogies I’m using here is especially pleasant, and that’s because the music isn’t, really. HEALTH’s commitment to making the brain flush dopamine through sensory overload is unfailingly undermined at every turn by their commitment to an aesthetic that’s oppressive, suffocating, bordering on malevolent. Beneath the superficial fullness of these tracks is hollowness and rot. They’re exceptionally shallow and rather sickly. Jacob Duzsik’s robotic tenor is much too flat and thin to be expressive, so instead his haunted evocations of human vice and frailty work as structural guideposts for the songs and set the unremittingly dour mood of Death Magic. There’s nothing wrong with that — god knows I love a good musical plunge into the depths of human misery — but combined with the incessantly maxed-out volume and general intention to overwhelm, the end result is 40 minutes of music that drain the listener’s energy and will. Listening to HEALTH becomes an exercise in letting oneself be bludgeoned, in feeling like you have no perspective on the music, like it’s happening to you rather than for you. I wouldn’t call it enjoyable, and there’s nothing to suggest the band has any other goal. For all its urgency and danceable pacing, Death Magic unexpectedly turns out to be an interminable chore. When “Stonefist,” the second track, comes out of the gate swinging, I find it a genuine and visceral thrill, but the high doesn’t last beyond a few minutes, and there's nothing else here to take its place. Death Magic works in four-minute increments only.

In the video for “New Coke,” the narrative halts abruptly halfway through and we’re treated to long, slow-motion shots of people vomiting in a disgusting club bathroom. At first, it’s mesmerizingly beautiful and gross, but as the sequence wears on and it becomes clear that the rest of the video will contain nothing but more gracefully photographed arcs of orange barf, the beauty and audacity lose evaporate along with the viewer's goodwill. It becomes just gross, irritating, and finally boring. This was a fitting introduction to Death Magic, a record that follows the same downward trajectory into diminishing returns. D PLUS