Death From Above 1979 return with The Physical World

Death From Above 1979’s 2004 debut You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine always struck me as a scorched earth deal, a grenade tossed by Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler into an unsuspecting music scene before striding away, completely nonchalant.

The robustness of the record suggested a simplicity that belied how tricky it was to make a drum kit and a bass guitar sound this good. The fact that no one’s really replicated DFA1979 in the decade since is testament to that, however well groups like Royal Blood, Japandroids and DZ Deathrays might play in the same sandpit. It makes sense that Grainger and Keeler would step away from the group; the macho dance-rock template they’d provided was inherently restrictive, particularly when compared with the opportunities afforded within MSTRKRFT’s electronica.

Ah, but here we are a decade later, and the group’s 2011 reunion — one of many in the recent past, though few groups have reunited so quickly — has borne new fruit in the form of The Physical World, a full-bodied record that simultaneously demonstrates the enduring appeal of the DFA1979 sound and its inherent musical limitations. If you’re looking for a revolution, another detonation within the increasingly marginalised rock universe, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re content with another kickass 36-minute slab of pounding, propulsive ferocity, though, then you’ll be more than satisfied.

It’s not that The Physical World is a reproduction of You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, exactly. The production sounds fuller, more “professional” (whatever that means) — it’s the sort of production you’d expect from a couple dudes who’ve been focusing on dance music for the last few years. I’m in two minds regarding the production; I appreciate the heftiness of the sound, the way riffs resonate and fill the room… but I do miss the crispness of the snare drums, the evocation of a live performance that was found in the debut. This doesn’t change the fact that if the duo had released The Physical World in late 2005, it wouldn’t have blown anyone away.

That’s especially true of the first five tracks, which could’ve easily been forgotten B-sides from 2004. Cowbell-heavy opener “Cheap Talk” features the chorus lyric “we’ll never last” — which you can take as ironic or defeatist, depending on how you fill your glass. “Crystal Ball” rattles like a runaway train at full speed, with the vocals struggling to catch up with the instruments; the track that precedes it — “Always On” — is a disappointment in comparison, with neither the bass nor Grainger’s vocals possessing the expected musculature. “Right On, Frankenstein!” is called “Right On, Frankenstein!”

The group’s lyrics are largely defined by a swaggering braggadocio, a total embrace of the rock star mythology. How else could you get away with lyrics like “I was born on the highway / In a trainwreck”. This is rock ‘n’ roll channelled through a firebreathing avatar of destruction, the kind of fearsome god that bellows “There’s nothing sacred to me … Where have all the virgins gone?” There’s a lingering note of doubt, though. “My patience wasted / I’ve done nothing of significance … Now there’s nothin’ left” — lyrics from “Nothin’ Left” — suggest that there’s a fragility beneath that formidable front.

If The Physical World is the work of a vengeful god, a cyclonic onslaught buffeting the listener, then “White is Red” is the eye of the storm. A moment of clarity. We’re not talking a third wave emo acoustic ballad or anything, just a slight slackening in the tempo, an introduction of some handclaps into the percussion, and the addition of a reverberating resonance to the texture of the guitar sound (reminiscent of Japandroids’ best tracks). The songs that follow don’t escape the DFA1979 template entirely, but they do strain against its margins with more enthusiasm (for the most part, anyway — “Gemini” is imminently skippable).

That’s found in the scrappier feel of “Government Trash”, which reclaims that crisp snare drum sound I was talking about alongside thinner bass notes that suggest a punk vibe, or the experimentation found in the synth “vocals” that join Grainger in the chorus of the title track. These aren’t huge departures — and they’re not immediately apparent upon first listen — but they do hint at the possibility of innovation within Death From Above 1979’s robust template. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for album number three to experience that sort of evolution.

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