Review Summary: The virgins in Paris may be gone, but Death From Above 1979 is back.
When you think of a “rock band”, you probably envision four to five people with thousands upon thousands of people spread out before them as they bang out their tunes to an elaborate light show, each member carefully directing the crowd’s attention as the song exhibits each of their skills. No need to apologize – this is just the image that popular culture has cemented in our heads. But of course it’s possible to produce compelling music with fewer faces – power trios such as Rush and the early days of Revocation (not that the two have much in common sonically) easily prove that.
Canadian noisepunk band Death From Above 1979 became famous in 2004 not only for taking a minimalist approach to the concept of a “band” – it consists solely of members Sebastien Grainger and Jesse Keeler, both in the studio and at live shows – but for including no physical instruments other than Grainger’s drums and Keeler’s distorted bass/occasional synth. This creates a fairly empty and aggressive sound, which lent itself well to the raw atmosphere of their debut “You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine”. Their breakup just two short years later was a real tragedy for the music world, as there were still plenty of places their sound could have ventured. However, just as all things must end, all bands must reunite (apparently), and over the course of the current decade we were treated to more live shows and eventually an album announcement. So does “The Physical World” live up to the immense legacy of its predecessor? Well, no, but thankfully the reason is because it doesn’t try to – the album benches the noisier aspects of their sound in favor of a more melodic and disco-inspired approach.
The differences are most apparent at the opening – while “Machine” opened with what could be considered an all-out sonic assault, “The Physical World” gives us the comparatively restrained “Cheap Talk”, a dancy masterpiece that doesn’t shy away from feeling almost playful. The song also prominently pushes the tuneful side of Grainger’s vocals; instead of being mostly chromatic and shouty, his vocals now carry arguably more of the melody than the bass. This is used to full effect in songs like “White is Red”, which features hypnotic, subdued basslines that bring out the best in the already catchy choruses. People who are afraid the punk side has been completely thrown out the window should be appeased by bangers like “Right On, Frankenstein!” and “Government Trash”, and the title track shows off some of the more experimental and complex songwriting the band has to offer.
Going back and forth between tracks from the two albums, it’s easy to see how much more full “The Physical World” sounds than the debut, and little to no “cheating” is involved – it’s not that producer Dave Sardy has made two men sound like six men, it’s that he’s made two men sound like two men who are viciously assaulting you with their instruments. It’s rare to get a chance to see two instruments get to absolutely own the mix like this on a major label release with big name talent behind the production, and it lives up to the pedigree.
Overall, “The Physical World” can’t hope to be as influential or essential as its predecessor. With a difference of ten years, sometimes being the logical next step isn’t quite enough. But it’s a damn fine album in its own right: groovy, aggressive, catchy, and fun – sometimes separately and sometimes all at once.