HEALTH's 'Death Magic': How a Noise Band, Haxan Cloak & Kanye's Engineer Made 2015's Coolest Heavy Album
Out August 7 on Loma Vista Recordings, HEALTH’s “Death Magic” sounds like peak Nine Inch Nails filtered through “Yeezus,” in the headspace of a band that had just written the soundtrack for a third person shooter game. That means it's pretty good.
Kanye West's Yeezus is the greatest noise album ever made by a rapper. As the architect of its aesthetic, 'Ye tapped the underground -- Arca, Evian Christ, Hudson Mohawke -- and the producers were thrust into a much larger spotlight thanks to the Yeezus liner notes. By the looks of SWISH's supposed album art, Kanye's next album is pulling comparably grim inspiration from heavy metal. But whatever becomes of West's next album, rest assured that two years after Yeezus, the hip-hop-gone-noise cycle has found its way back home.
Death Magic is HEALTH's first studio album since 2009. More than any rock album this year, it balances ambition and accomplishment, like peak Nine Inch Nails filtered through present-day 'Ye, in the headspace of a band that had just written the soundtrack for a third-person shooter game (which HEALTH had done for 2012's Max Payne 3). Nocturnal, left-of-center hip-hop tracks like "Tuesday" or "No Type" can thrive on the Billboard Hot 100, but for artists working in heavy rock music, that trail has hardly been blazed, at least not for years. HEALTH's latest aspired to be the first of a new wave; but how do you write an album based around a sound that doesn't exist yet?
Taking six whole years helps. HEALTH intended to explore this realm for 2009's Get Color, but these were the band's very noisy, still relatively formative years, where the ambition outweighed the means. In other words, HEALTH couldn't come up with the money or the time. And the setting didn't help either. The band cut its teeth in the L.A. noise scene centered on a downtown DIY punk venue called The Smell, which also helped kickstart the careers of No Age, Best Coast and the band Abe Vigoda in the mid-to-late 2000s. "Being a grungy, DIY noise punk band, you don't really think about working with producers," HEALTH frontman Jake Duzsik says. "It might be considered a dirty word in the DIY scene."
When HEALTH first started, it hardly mattered. Duzsik teamed with Jupiter Keyes, Benjamin Jared Miller, and John Famiglietti in 2006, and they debuted the next year with a fierce, grating self-titled debut of a noise album. Of all its tracks, one called "Crimewave" probably reached the most ears, though only because of a electropoppy remix on Crystal Castles' indie-famous debut LP the next year that sounded little like the original. The skittering synths of HEALTH's 2009 follow-up Get Color and 2010 single called "USA Boys" first proved that the quartet had some pop aspirations -- that is, intentional hooks that repeated themselves within songs.
The Death Magic genesis lies shortly after the band wrapped Get Color. Before HEALTH enlisted any collaborators, it began breathing life into its after-dark pop dreams, writing the porto-version of an uncharacteristically uplifting, metallic synth show called "LIFE." Tracks like this attracted the burgeoning indie label Loma Vista Recordings, which eventually added HEALTH to its roster alongside Spoon, St. Vincent and Marilyn Manson. The band got the attention of outside collaborators -- a first -- after wrapping work on Max Payne 3 (still well within its industrial comfort zone) and hunkered down for a long road toward LP No. 3.
Another early song that endured all the way to Death Magic's final track listing was "NEW COKE." Check out its official video below:
In case you noticed a trend, HEALTH's moniker and all its song titles are written in eternal caps lock. It's not "New Coke"; it's "NEW COKE," dammit. Even so, Death Magic isn't the decadent, druggy free-for-all it seems at first glance. "It's not a pro-drug record and it's not an anti-drug record," Duzsik assures, pointing out that "NEW COKE" is actually a nod to the failed Crystal Pepsi revolution of 1992. "A lot of the album is about death too. In a lot of ways drugs are about death, not because they're dangerous, but because life can be difficult lots of people use drugs to escape, but there's also that other element of existence that's really exciting." This duality is expressed in the "NEW COKE" video. One minute the L.A. scenesters are looking cool, the next, HEALTH is projectile vomiting in the bathroom. And just to dispel any rumors of CGI usage, Famiglietti chugged another gallon of milk and let a recent Reddit AMA audience witness the results.
"Their last record was all done on analog; this one was digital," producer Andrew Dawson explains. Take Famiglietti's bass playing: "He makes an entirely new instrument out of pedals, feedback, and amps," Dawson says. "Calling it a bass is almost oversimplifying it." The effect comes from Dawson's willingness to apply hip-hop production techniques to rock instruments, a practice that's often pondered, but seldom perfected. "We would record guitars, drums, or bass, and then would re-sample it and chop it up to give it even more impact. You don't have ringing over snare drums or guitars. They're done. Your point has been made."
Dawson got his big break engineering Kanye West's College Dropout (after a succession of forerunners weren't up to to the task) and has engineered every Kanye record since, in addition to credits on a bevy of behemoth hip-hop records: The Carter III, Paper Trail, Teflon Don. "I have to give a lot of credit to working with Kanye for so long. If you look at his discography, every album he's like, 'Okay, we're going to try something completely new.'"
That mentality went hand-in-hand with HEALTH's, whose members had grown tired of rock's collaboration-resistant, "lone genius" mindset and started noticing Power 106 played the most interesting music on L.A. radio. "What does it mean to make a heavy record in 2015?" Duzsik often asked himself. Looking beyond hip-hop, that question drew HEALTH to the British producer Bobby Krlic -- aka Haxan Cloak -- and his danse macabre (minus the danse)-minded 2013 album Excavation. Working remotely from England, Krlic collaborated with HEALTH on Death Magic's dirgey, two-minute, slasher-flick-of-an-intro track "Victim" and its similarly-fleeting midway interlude "SALVIA," which sounds like Haxan Cloak mixed with gunshot samples left over from Max Payne. "We were planning on doing more," Duzsik explains. "But then… he made a Bjork record. Can't get mad at that!"
"The final lynchpin," as the HEALTH frontman puts it, was Lars Stalfors, a frequent Mars Volta collaborator who also co-produced ex-Crystal Castler Alice Glass' solo debut single "Stillbirth" this year along with HEALTH's Jupiter Keyes. Stalfors entered the fray when Death Magic was still incomplete and label-less, helped the band build the late-coming, majestic "L.A. LOOKS" from scratch, and finished mixing in Feb. 2015, once Loma Vista had already come calling. Back at The Smell, Stalfors had played in bands alongside HEALTH, and the over time, the old acquaintances developed a familiar conversational shorthand. "When we made this record, we were always talking about making things modern," Stalfors remembers. "I don't think there's another modern band like this now."
"We tried to make a modern rock record," Duzsik concurs, unwilling to go full-on poptimist and nix the dreaded r-word. And he's right; Death Magic is still a rock record in how it aims to pummel, thump, and pulverize, and how it often chooses some mutant strain of guitar to do so. And that's not the only way HEALTH are traditionalists in the right ways; "We still really care about sequencing," Duzsik admits, single-only streamers be damned. "As cynical and sarcastic as we are -- we have our acerbic wit on Twitter -- we still really deeply care about music, and we take that shit seriously when we sequence a record."
But what about the live show, where that snare drum is going to ring out over the guitar whether you like it or not? This remaining aspect of the rock tradition remains largely unseen, as Death Magic has been seldom road-tested, outside of a handful of mid-2015 shows. For one of the band's first gigs (so far) after release day, it'll play Basilica Soundscape (Sept. 11-13), a noisy, dissonant aesthetic utopia held inside a converted factory in Hudson, N.Y. that could prove the perfect cavernous expanse for HEALTH's grinding beats to echo into eternity. "I think we might do more experimental, some of our older stuff," Duzsik says. "It's a very unique festival, so we're going to try to have a special set for it."
Haxan Cloak will be around, too, so there's time to continue that collaboration, so long as Bjork doesn't show up unexpected. Either way, HEALTH has entered the collaboration game and thanks to a series of unprecedented leaps of faith, the sound they dreamed of for over a decade finally exists. Where it goes next is anyone's guess.