It’s been six years since L.A. noise-rock band HEALTH released a proper album, and it would be naive to expect (or hope) nothing would have changed in that time. Many got their first introduction to this band via Crystal Castles’ rendition of “Crimewave,” which chopped up HEALTH’s cryptic vocals and wove them into a grim, grungy, chip-tuney dance track. HEALTH’s own work was largely more abrasive, loaded with intense percussion, blaring instruments and largely inaudible singing. Death Magic is probably not the record anyone was expecting to get, and its more pop-oriented sound could be welcome or repulsive depending on the listener.
“Victim” opens the album on slow, pounding drums and ominous blasts of sound, giving a dark and foreboding feel reminiscent of Thomas Bangalter’s Irreversible score. The next few tracks follow this trend, though often in a slightly more melodic vein. “Stonefist” and “Flesh World (UK)” feature the band channeling their inner Pet Shop Boys, while “Men Today” showcases aggressive, tribal, polyrhythmic percussion in what would best be described as sonic assault. The juxtaposition of these different styles is a little confusing, and sometimes works wonderfully to create a kind of nihilistic pop sound. Other times though, it falls flat.
Death Magic‘s conflict is made most clear in the back-to-back tracks “Life” and “Salvia.” While not a bad song objectively speaking, in the context of this album, “Life” belongs in the garbage. It’s a relatively light-hearted, melodic, catchy pop song — practically Top 40 material — followed immediately by one of Death Magic‘s darkest notes, “Salvia,” an apocalyptic track dominated by a percussion section that’s made to sound like machine-gun fire. The two songs are both well-done and couldn’t be more different, but rather than being sublime, their combination is just baffling.
In a way, it’s refreshing to see HEALTH incorporate more pop elements into their music. Previous albums could verge on un-listenable to all but the most devoted fans of artsy noise music. Death Magic will almost certainly appeal to a wider audience, but some of its more poppy moments feel so ham-fistedly kitschy it’s also certain to turn off some from the niche crowd who will now be able to say they liked HEALTH’s older stuff.