HEALTH don’t sound much like a punk band these days. Really, they didn’t sound much like a punk band when we first met them, nearly a decade ago. The early HEALTH were recognizably a product of L.A.’s freewheeling warehouse scene, but even in a comparatively open-minded punk-rock context, they stood out. Their sound was spacey and psychedelic and percussive, and it had more to do with the Boredoms than it did with Black Flag. They had the scrappy lo-fi intensity that’s driven a few generations of California punk bands, but they seemed to be reaching their arms skyward in a way that nobody else was doing. They had a feral, urgent quality, but they still seemed based around groove above all else. When I saw them open for New York’s Mercury Lounge in 2008, they constantly switched instruments and frontman duties, everyone taking turns stabbing at cheap synths or banging drums on the floor. I compared the result to “the drum solo from ‘Wipeout’ falling slowly down a massive flight of granite stairs,” and seven years later, I’m not sure what the fuck I was talking about. But these days, HEALTH don’t sound like a punk band or a spacey, psychedelic, percussive, Boredoms-inspired DIY art project. Instead, they sound like an incredibly angry group of studio-pop professionals who want to hurt you. It’s a good look for them.
The last time HEALTH released a proper album, it was 2009’s sophomore joint Get Color, and it sounded like a great leap forward. This stargazing basement punk band had started adapting arena-rock dynamics — bigger choruses, harder-hitting beats, more room for its sound to breathe. And then they got a chance to put those arena-rock dynamics to the test when they opened for Nine Inch Nails’ whole breakup tour. A lot has happened since then. The indie rock landscape has shifted dramatically, the pop landscape has shifted dramatically, and Trent Reznor has won an Oscar, gotten Nine Inch Nails back together, toured a bunch more, and had something big to do with Apple Music. And now it’s hard to go back to Get Color, which sounds hissy and diffuse and small next to what HEALTH have accomplished on the new Death Magic, easily their best album. HEALTH haven’t spent the past six years doing nothing. Their biggest project in recent years has been the soundtrack to the video game Max Payne 3. I can’t tell you much about their work for the game; I decided I was done with Max Payne when I couldn’t get past that dream-sequence level with the crying-baby sound effects in the first game. (Seriously, fuck that level.) But listening to Death Magic, it’s clear that HEALTH have logged heavy time in the studio and learned how to use the studio as an instrument. On the new album, it’s just about impossible to tell whether any given noise comes from a guitar or from a synth. They’ve become this seemless electro-organic whole, a band with no remaining ideological connection to being a band. All that remains is noise and melody, and they always find the most efficient way to deliver both.
HEALTH used to hide their melodies and words and ideas in a vast, undulating cloud of reverb and effects-pedal buzz. And they were good at it; they knew how to make that stuff work for them. But with Death Magic, they’ve gone the opposite direction. Their sounds are big and bold and blocky and aggressive. They pound sweet and hyper-compressed melodies down your throat and make it impossible for you to ignore them. Instead of letting sounds melt into each other, they make sure each individual noise gets a chance to stand out, to punch you in the ear. Sometimes they use that approach to blast you with seasick bursts of noise, and sometimes they use it to play big, clean, shimmering melodies. Sometimes, they do both at once. Either way, it’s an oddly brave way of doing things. They strip sound of all mystique and lay it right out for you. And they’re not afraid to make straight-up pop music.
Case in point: “Life,” probably the catchiest song on the album. It opens with a big, heavy programmed beat and a heavy, longing synth-or-guitar riff. When singer Jacob Duzsik’s voice comes in, it’s light and warm. There’s some vocal processing on it, but you can hear every word he’s singing, and he’s singing about not knowing what he wants out of life, about our vast shared confusion. There’s a harmonic richness to the track; either Duzsik’s bandmates or his own multitracked voice comes in behind him and fills out the track. There’s some clangy noise in the track, but it’s all finely sculpted, all arranged to serve the melody. The track is heavily electronic, though I don’t know exactly how electronic. I can’t imagine how the band will reproduce it live, and it doesn’t seem like that was a concern when they made it.
Back when HEALTH first came in, they were probably compared to fellow L.A. band No Age more than they were compared to everyone else. So it’s striking just how huge the distance between the two bands has become. No Age have moved more and more over the years toward gloopy, undefined drift. They’re happy to let their songs float off into the ether before they quite come together as songs. Meanwhile, HEALTH are absolutely merciless about pounding these songs into shape. Apparently, one of the reasons Death Magic took so long to arrive is that they recorded it over and over, never quite satisfied with the result. And while the album keeps a certain urgency, you can hear the perfectionism in the way each individual sound is precisely modulated so that it’ll punch as hard as possible.
There’s a dark mystery to the album, but it’s one that complements these big, gleaming pop songs. I was going to name Depeche Mode as a reference point even before reading this interview, in which the band does the same thing. In that same interview, the members of HEALTH also talk about being into Rihanna and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” and the album has some of that same unrelenting sparkle. And they talk about how Nine Inch Nails raided industrial music for parts and changed things by finding melody in the noise. They talk about that as a good thing, and they’re right to do it. So maybe on Death Magic, they’re doing something similar with warehouse art-punk. They’ve made a weird little mutant beast of an album, a hybrid monster that makes noise-rock and big-money pop music sound like different sides of the same coin. And if it took six years of working on video-game music for them to get to that point, it was time well-spent.
Death Magic is out 8/7 on Loma Vista. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Dr. Dre’s long, long-awaited comeback and Detox replacement Compton: The Soundtrack (which very well could be the best album of the week but which nobody has heard yet).
• Krallice’s experimental black metal opus Ygg Huur.
• Mac DeMarco’s sloshing, googly-eyed Another One.
• Worriers’ sharp, informed, Laura Jane Grace-produced Imaginary Life.
• Chelsea Wolfe’s dark, heavy wallow Abyss.
• Teen Daze’s upbeat, atmospheric Morning World.
• La Luz’s twanging, twinkling Weirdo Shrine.
• Night Beds’ heavy-hearted roots album Ivywild.
• Dornik’s self-titled shimmery R&B debut.
• Deaf Wish’s fragile, rumbling Pain.
• Big Awesome’s fired-up emo-revival debut Party On.
• Zachary Cale’s unrushed, drawling Duskland.
• Ultimate Painting’s sweetly jangling Green Lanes.
• Enola Fall’s soul-searching electro-popper Heliotropic.
• The Phoenix Foundation’s poppy prog LP Give Up Your Dreams.
• Nate Heller’s Diary Of A Teenage Girl soundtrack.
• Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique’s sparkling mini-album Love Is Free.