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Album Review: HEALTH 'Death Magic'

It’s been six years since the last album release from Health, unless you count the DISCO2 remix album or the Max Payne 3 soundtrack. Though their first two studio albums embodied a ferociousness as part of the LA noise scene it could be alienating to the casual listener.

Seeing them live brought it all together, the rapid-fire cacophony of rhythm and noise fusing together in a guttural explosion that was as unsettling as it was enthralling. However it’s the remix albums that have helped reveal a side to HEALTH that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Ever since that remix of Crimewave by Crystal Castles helped launch both act’s careers, HEALTH have released a remix counterpart album for each of their studio albums that have been so much more than cynical cash-ins. The remixes drew the melodies from amongst the noise and reimagined the tracks to extents where the original was but a series of lego bricks. 2010’s Get Colour remix album counterpart DISCO2 differed in that it opened with an original recording from the band that sounded not quite like anything that had come before it, a gateway between the two warring sides of HEALTH. From my very first listen of USA Boys I knew I was hearing something special. It balanced the underlying tension of their other earlier with a gentle compelling melody which got right under your skin and demanded repeat listens. To this day, I still get chills listening to that track.

Since then I’ve been beyond impatient to hear this album, to hear this more accessible incarnation of the band’s trademark sound. I saw them play at Birthdays in London (UK) in 2013, a set consisting of mostly new material and was one of the best live performances I’ve ever experienced. Even having never heard most of these songs before, I knew I was witnessing something special. As the album release continued to remain elusive, I started to fear something was amiss, the curse of delayed and overthought albums in the back of my mind. I’d let my expectations get too high for the album to ever do anything but disappoint. I scoured the news, looking for hints of its progress, my excitement levels reaching breaking point when I discovered ambient-doom maestro The Haxan Cloak was involved with the production, I couldn’t think of a more perfect match.

Then it happened. A promo as part of Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show of all places, featuring an edited down snippet of the track ‘Stonefist’. It was more than I could have hoped for, all attempts to suppress my excitement were futile. Just thirty seconds long but enough to know this was what I had been waiting for. When I finally had a copy of the album to listen to, I played it with an excitement that I haven’t felt for a new album in years. From the opening pounding drum of ‘Victim’ I was hooked. This is the HEALTH that bridges the gap between their earlier savageries and their melodic, eclectic remix albums.

The criticism most commonly thrown at the band in this new guise is to call them “sell outs”. Talking to the band after a show in Oxford, UK back in 2011 I congratulated them on their incredible work on the Max Payne 3 soundtrack, to which they instantly quipped “I know, we’re massive sell outs, right?” sarcastic wit, prepared for the burn. Despite the fact that the music industry of today bares so little resemblance to that which mollycoddled the grunge acts of the 90s for whom that insult was commonplace, the fact remains that there is a massive gap between the band who recorded the unsettling Courtship on their debut and the one who recorded new ridiculously catchy single Life. The viciousness of ‘Salvia’ coming straight after it redresses the balance to those finding the pop levels too overwhelming. Many in the noise scene have always been suspicious of HEALTH, being the sorts of people who record on tape to pro-actively limit the potential audience they can have, it’s not surprising. This album will not win those people over, and it’s all the better for it. Though it is still highly unlikely to get full mainstream accolades (dark lyrical content, or moments of terror such as the intro to ‘Men Today’), it’s undeniably more accessible than anything that has come before it. There are unquestionable singles on a HEALTH album for the first time, songs which you could imagine on the radio and dare-I-say it, at parties. Imagine! They’re a Nine Inch Nails for a whole new generation.

I almost feel it’s impossible for me to give a subjective review of this album, based on the preamble above. I can’t stop listening to it, and it’s everything I could have hoped for, but as with everything, context and hype is key. Could I say that the same series of songs would have had the same impact if I was listening to the band as though new? I like to think so. I like to think opener ‘Victim’ is the song I wish The Knife recorded after Silent Shout. That ‘Stonefist’ is the sort of song that sounds almost stadium sized but without the layers of cheese that usually comes with. That ‘Men Today’ has an inhumanly well thought out balance between the beauty and the beast. I could go on, there’s not a track on the album that misses the mark for me.

Whether another six year gap would build the same level of anticipation for future HEALTH recordings remains to be seen, and I genuinely hope it doesn’t come to that. Though in building the mystique and legend, it feels like a victory march to finally hear this album particularly being as good as it is. There may be just under four months left this year, but it’s going to take something incredible to top this in 2015 for me.

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