Reviews Death From Above 1979 The Physical World

Death From Above 1979

The Physical World

For a time in the mid- to late-2000s, it seemed as if Canadian drum and bass duo Death from Above 1979 might go the way of Neutral Milk Hotel and disappear right at the height of their popularity. Coming off their exhilarating and slightly raunchy 2004 album You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine which seemed to pop up at just the right time to provide a counterpoint to the wishy-washy world of indie rock at the time, DFA1979 promised bigger and better things, then suddenly disbanded in mid-2006 with bassist Jesse F. Keeler and drummer/vocalist Sebastien Grainger going on to work on a seemingly endless string of other projects. Having been a big fan of the debut album as well as the even more aggressive Heads Up EP that preceded it, I was genuinely shocked when the breakup announcement was made, and judging from the level of animosity that existed between Keeler and Grainger at the time, I wasn’t all that hopeful that the project would continue down the line.

Three years after officially reforming, the sophomore album from the duo finally saw the light of day in 2014 and it’s a surprisingly good second effort. The Physical World may not be the balls-out, furious half hour of rock’n’roll that the debut album was, but it certainly reflects the fact that this is the same pair of musicians who are now writing music with a perspective that can only be gained through life experience. Whereas You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine was hormone-driven rock at its most primal and sleazy, The Physical World has moments in which vocalist Grainger seems to be wrestling with the consequences of the thought processes that existed on the earlier album. This is nowhere more true than on “White is Red,” a comparatively restrained track that features a narrative about young love gone bad. It’s a track clearly written from the perspective of musicians who are ten years older and it’s arguably the best thing on the record from a songwriting perspective even if its slightly somber tone makes it imperfect as a single. All in all, this track alone is indicative of the vastly different tone that exists on this album versus the first, which ultimately makes The Physical World more than just a rehashed product from a band still trying to live up to its glory days: the more mature lyrics make it feel like we’re listening to a group of musicians and people who are in the process of evolving.

The down and dirty, energetic approach that made You’re a Woman... so great is still present on the band’s second album even if the pace has been slowed down and the group’s excesses have been tempered a bit. Keeler’s husky bass throughout is frequently quite frantic as it alternates between delivering grinding low tones and an overload of catchy hooks; it’s really easy for a listener to forget that there’s no guitar or frankly much in the way of additional instrumentation present on the album. Grainger meanwhile provides straight-forward rock drumming along with often doubled-up, high-pitched and sometimes screamy vocals that soar robustly over the shredding melodies. “Cheap Talk,” “Government Trash,” and “Right On, Frankenstein” are perfect herky-jerk dance-punk tunes, but these moments are evened out by the pummeling hard rock of tracks like “Virgins,” and “Always On” in which the tempo is more deliberate. Popping up after the comparatively poignant “White is Red,” first single “Trainwreck 1979” has undeniable momentum and attitude, with light electronic elements buzzing away in the background. “Gemini” both includes the trademark swirling bass sound that featured prominently on the band’s earlier recordings and a cheerful chorus lifted straight out of arena rock, and the album’s title track finishes things off with a loud, menacing and almost robotic piece built around throbbing bass, crashing percussion, and hollow, computerized melodies.

I’d be the first to admit that The Physical World isn’t quite on the level of Death From Above 1979’s debut, but it’s a much better album than I would have ever expected it to be. Though it lacks the memorable and almost iconic tracks that You’re a Woman... had, Keeler and Grainger have concocted an album that has more depth to it and is probably equally as if not more hard-hitting. Clearly, this duo has their formula down pat at this point, yet they’re still able to come up with some interesting ways of tweaking their sound. The electronic bits and pieces lurking in the periphery of the album provide background ear candy, and the melodies here are in-your-face and compelling. As sketchy a proposition of coming back after a decade to follow up a classic was, I think this was about the best result a fan could have hoped for. Here’s hoping that DFA1979 hold it together this time around.

8.0 / 10Andy
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