The long-awaited return of HEALTH was always going to be a big deal. Before 2009's 'Get Color', it wouldn't be a stretch to say that the band were best known for having Crystal Castles remix a song off their self-titled debut ('Crimewave'), but the second album put them on the map in ways that nobody was expecting.
It was released to acclaim at the time, but in the six-year interim that followed, the band gained the sort of following that's enabled them to sign to Loma Vista, a label that the likes of St. Vincent, Manchester Orchestra and Spoon call home - and they also released the highly-regarded soundtrack to the third instalment of the Max Payne video game series. It would have been perfect for them to create something noisy and uncompromising, but they instead produced a beautiful ambient score. It would have been interesting for them to continue down that route and have their third album be the antithesis of everything they'd become known for, but 'DEATH MAGIC' is not about radical changes; at least, not on the surface.
The quartet's reputation for aggression and a no-holds-barred attitude is all well and good - it's certainly gotten them places - but their masks have been slipping. It turns out that there's been a pop side within them all along (something they hinted at with 'USA Boys' back in 2010, it just needed to be coaxed out (before being brutally whipped into shape - the record took six years for a reason).
The melodies are gargantuan, sometimes deceptively simple - Exhibit A: 'Stonefist's bruising, one-note wonder of a hook - but always powerful enough to level buildings. HEALTH have never been about holding back, and honestly, with The Haxan Cloak on production duties, how could their songs not sound absolutely monstrous? Bobby Krlic's brand of sonic maximalism suits HEALTH exceedingly well: opener 'Victim' could have fit in on 'Excavation' sans Jake Duzsik's vocals, and the percussive firestorm that kicks off 'Men Today' is as oppressive-sounding as anything else he's left his mark on. One could call it a match made in heaven if it weren't for the album's hellish atmosphere.
In terms of lyrical content, Duzsik and his cohorts tackle big themes to match big-sounding tracks like 'Flesh World (UK)' and 'Life', the latter of which is a contemplation on the meaning of existence ("Life is strange, but it's all we've got") set to a swaggering mid-tempo beat and one of the year's most euphoric hooks. 'New Coke' and 'L.A. Looks', meanwhile, are two sides of the same coin, showing that there are myriad ways of creating huge, accessible songs that come couched in noise.
Deliberate measures are taken to ensure that 'DEATH MAGIC' is never anything less than a HEALTH record from start to finish. This record may have one foot in the world of pop, but it's still intense and frightening stuff, as primal and raw as the likes of 'Courtship' from their debut - a sequel to which appears here, helpfully titled 'Courtship II', recontextualising the original and expanding on it in ways the 2007 iteration of HEALTH wouldn't have so much as dreamed of.
The battle between melody and noise at the heart of 'DEATH MAGIC' is a fascinating one, and the twelve songs on which it plays out are damn near bulletproof. Welcome to the most terrifying pop album of 2015.
Words: Gareth O'Malley
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