The Loudness Wars are over. One of the last over the trenches were L.A. band HEALTH, though their contributions to the victorious effort – measured in the maximalism of modern pop music – were overshadowed by the final wave of reinforcements. In the wake of the searing synths of their compatriots Crystal Castles, the drum-machine mania of Sleigh Bells’ hyper-pop or Metallica’s much-maligned Death Magnetic, HEALTH’s balance of twisted, warped guitars and remote vocals – subsumed and angelic alike – feels almost delicate, implausibly fragile in comparison.
There’s something different about HEALTH’s sound, an organic quality that escapes their legionnaires in the last wave of Loud. They lack the deliberateness – the excess born of every knob turned to its extreme, every neon bar pulsing at its upper limits – but channel something purer. Their tool is the ‘Zoothorn’ – a guitar pedal/microphone combo invented by the band – but despite its name suggesting a long-forgotten Nintendo accessory, the sounds it produces are unpredictable, evocative, raw – harnessing the very pulse of electricity.
That rawness goes some way towards explaining the existence of HEALTH//DISCO and HEALTH//DISCO2, rare examples of remix albums worth admiring beyond an isolated track or two. Their existence is a necessary acknowledgment of the atavistic power of the albums that precede them, mostly successful attempts to tame the band’s unshielded energies. HEALTH’s third studio album, DEATH MAGIC, is an extension of that approach, reflecting the post-Loudness War-pop reality – and the band’s experimental experience soundtracking an AAA videogame – with a tighter, sharper approach. It represents a primordial first step from glitch-punk towards glitch-pop. It’s an evolution executed with finesse, but I couldn’t help but lament the abandonment of the group’s crude vestigial appendages.
That approach was apparent from the album’s first single, “NEW COKE”, which vibrates with the melancholy energy of an abandoned dancefloor, a distant disco beat overlaid with an open electrical socket’s plaintive cries. It’s a dance song you can’t dance to, cleaner than the group’s early work but no less evocative. “LIFE” is a starker divergence: its frontloaded pretty vocals, its catchy skittery chorus, its lingering sense that it could infiltrate the pop charts, sidling up alongside the love songs and braggadocio and bangers without seeming altogether out of place.
The drum machine is the culprit here, perhaps. Benjamin Jared Miller’s drumming served as fulcrum in those earlier records, a limber-limbed humanness under the electric exertion; more often than not here, he’s sidelined. That experimentation occasionally pays dividends – the stale synthetic snap of the percussion in “DARK ENOUGH” accentuates the track’s yearning – but just as often it sounds like a mistake. The rat-a-tat pulse of instrumental track “SALVIA” – shades of Sleigh Bells – lessens a track in need of a human element.
These complaints shouldn’t suggest that DEATH MAGIC is a failure; even the weaker tracks are products of an experimental, diverse approach that rewards multiple listens. That raw power remains, too; the album’s second track and second single, “STONEFIST”, marries the indomitable heft of the band’s live show with a cleanness, a slender pop edge that adds rather than subtracts. HEALTH’s accessibility isn’t a concession, but consistent with the drive for something different that is fundamental to the group. The Loudness Wars may be over, but DEATH MAGIC demonstrates that there are still skirmishes worth fighting on its boundaries.