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Review: Death From Above 1979’s ‘The Physical World’

Bassists unfamiliar with Death From Above 1979 should make themselves familiar with this act if not for one reason only: it’s a bass guitar and drummer duo.

Death From Above 1979 (or DFA 1979 for short) are a duo from Toronto, Ontario, Canada made up of bassist Jesse Keeler and drummer Sebastien Grainger. The band has been called everything from punk rock to dance rock to dance punk to even disco punk and just about everything else in between and frankly it’s deserved. None can seem to pin down Death From Above 1979 and put them into one musical box. Not to sound cliche, but their sound is just so unique and difficult to define. It crosses into so many different styles and feels that after hearing the band the listener’s next most natural confusion would be what to make of what they just heard.

But one thing is for sure: they hit hard. Really hard. With nothing more than a fuzzed out Rickenbacker and a drum set.

Beginnings: Heads Up, Singles and You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine

Death From Above 1979 first came on the music scene in 2001 and released their famous EP in 2002, Heads Up (left). It was a short album: 6 songs and just over 13 minutes long but the album stood out to all who listened. The sound was raw and refreshing. Not since Lightning Bolt from Providence, Rhode Island was there such an ambitious sound combining the ferocious sounds of a fuzzed out bass guitar with hard hitting drums – and nothing more.

Oh – and the album artwork is pretty damn cool too and instantly crafted the brand image of the band.

It wasn’t until 2004 when the band put out their first full length album, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. While the band’s breakout EP was just 6 songs and 13 minutes long, You’re a Woman showcased 11 songs and spanned just over half an hour. Though still considered a ‘short’ album by today’s standard, the full length album was no less a hard-hitting work that stood the test of time and burned the image Death From Above 1979 into the minds of the public for years to come. Singles off the album including ‘Romantic Rights’, ‘Blood on our Hands’ and ‘Black History Month’ helped to solidify this band as one of music’s most unique and engaging acts in a long while.

After the release of You’re a Woman, the band continued to tour through 2005 and 2006, releasing a handful of singles and remixes before calling it quits in 2006. To many, Death From Above 1979 came and went like a firecracker and made a heck of a lot of noise in the process.

But unlike other bands that come and go in a blaze of fury only to be forgotten as time moves on, Death From Above 1979 only seemed to gain more fans and more strength as years went on. Their music reached more ears and the fan base continued to grow as the band continued to work on other projects desperately. Drummer Sebastien Grainger said in a recent interview that the main driver behind the band’s newest album in over 10 years, The Physical World, came about because the fans wanted it to happen so bad.

Enter 2014 where bassist Jesse Keeler announces on the band’s site that the band was reforming and that new music was on the way. The band released the single, ‘Trainwreck 1979’ in July of this year followed by another single ‘Government Trash’ the following month. The songs were classic DFA 1979: pounding drums, wailing vocals, and crunchy bass all wrapped up in a body movin’ groove that would be the focus of the band’s latest and much anticipated release, The Physical World.

Death From Above 1979’s The Physical World: More of The Same…Sort Of.

Times and scenes have changed since 2004. While some bands who were peers and contemporaries to DFA 1979 have changed their sound considerably over the last 10 years, DFA 1979 returns with the same fire and energy of their first release with one key difference: the songwriting itself.

2004’s You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine

You’re a Woman balanced angst with tounge-in-cheek social criticism in front of a backdrop of danceable noise rock. The songwriting for what it was in the context it was presented in was refreshing and new and only being done by a handful of other acts in the New York dance punk scene at the time including Liars and James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem. It was a tight knit scene and DFA 1979 fit right in with in their own unique way.

Now enter 2014. The dance punk scene has shifted away from what it once was in New York. Liars have since adopted a softer sound and LCD Soundsystem broke up in 2011 and the Rapture continued to thrive until breaking up this year.

While the dance punk scene might have shifted away, the sound and energy it developed stayed around in a different incarnation. Hard rock bands like Wolfmother took on this sound and went on to win a Grammy with the same hard-edged gritty sound that made the New York dance punk scene so infamous, as Consequence of Sound points out.

The Physical World still succeeds in capturing the rawness that made DFA 1979 so recognizable and so revered and that in and of itself can be viewed one of two ways. The first being disappointment that the band didn’t push another boundry with this album. The second being satisfaction that the band maintained their rough sound and danceable grooves.

While those taking the first side might be disappointed, those taking the second side – like myself – also might encounter some disappointment: the songwriting is the album’s biggest flaw.

Lyrically, many of the subjects have been done already – and done better by other acts in the last 10 years.

The death of God and the dilemma of God as a person or an idea? Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails covered that.

death from above 1979 the physical world album cover
2014’s The Physical World

Politics and the corruptness of the American (or in this case Canadian) bureaucracy? Done to death already by just about every punk band and rock band since the beginning of time.

The band does change up their style albeit briefly for the song ‘White is Red’. The band takes a more laid back, melancholy feel musically and Grainger’s lyrics reflect the change tackling feelings of love and loss in a way that isn’t super charged with dance grooves. It’s a welcomed change to the band’s sound even if it is for a single song and fits neatly within the bigger picture of the album. Maybe it’s the pacing or the chords being played, but the first few seconds of the song reminded me of ‘Glycerin’ by Bush. Sorry, everyone.

The album also has to fight against it’s predecessor album and the image, sound and expectation that it burned into the minds of fans and people hooked into the band by that album. Anytime a band is in a position where it needs to surpass a bar set by itself that was set very high from the get go, it’s no small task and most bands fall short or match their previous work. But those bands try to do it within a year or two years of that groundbreaking release. Death From Above 1979 had 10 years for their first album to simmer in the minds of music culture – more than enough time for fans to fuse with that album. It was only expected that this album would, unfortunately, fall short in the bigger picture.

But the fact that that is in fact another Death From Above 1979 album is great news, well worth the wait and ought to make it onto the playlist of every bass player out there looking for a crash course in some really hard hitting music.