Canadian dance-punk duo Death From Above 1979 have followed an interesting career trajectory. After achieving commercial success with their 2004 debut album You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, they disbanded in 2006. In recent years, Jesse F. Keeler and Sebastien Grainger have put aside their differences and reformed the band. Naturally, with their reunion comes a new album, The Physical World. Whether or not the band has improved or worsened over the years remains to be seen.
Opening track Cheap Talk starts off with a rumbling drone before the drums and bass come crashing in out of nowhere – certainly the kind of shock to the system that the band would need to deliver after a decade away. Synthesiser hooks flit in and out of hearing amidst a very danceable rhythm. It’s definitely a strong way to open up the album. Right On speeds things up a bit and works wonders as a result. The multiple vocal tracks and the no-nonsense sound of the bass make this a good track as well – the latter is especially impressive in the last minute or so of the song. Afterwards, Virgins slows things way back down with a crawling, swaggering rhythm.
From there, the tracks start to blur together a bit. That doesn’t necessarily make them awful, but these short, hard-hitting songs have to work hard to distinguish themselves from one another. At first, I didn’t realise Always On had started until it was at least halfway finished. Even so, it’s got a good hook and the backing vocals are memorable. Crystal Ball impresses on the basis of both a strong guitar riff and – perhaps more impressively – some very distinctive percussion work that grabs one’s attention in a good way. White Is Red also features the band’s trademark fuzzy bass sound, but this one is different because it’s slow and melancholy. Even as the drums start pounding, the song manages to maintain the same moodiness all the way through.
Trainwreck 1979 is the album’s lead single and the best possible choice for one. If the rudimentary yet solid bassline doesn’t grab a listener’s attention, the “ooh-ooh” backing vocals on the choruses definitely do. That is just one of several reasons why this is one of the better tracks on the album. Unfortunately, it is followed by Nothin’ Left, a track where the lack of musical variety in this band’s sound really makes itself felt. Another short, punchy number that’s alright by itself, but in the context of the album as a whole it starts to feel a bit tiresome, especially after the band successfully tried something different with Trainwreck 1979.
Government Trash also seems to suffer from the same lack of variety at first but its fast tempo manages to compensate for it somewhat. Gemini starts off with screeching noises that combine with some speedy guitar work, laying the groundwork for a catchy number. The title track really changes things up by starting off with what sounds like random notes on a on a synthesiser. As is expected, the bass and drums come in but this song actually starts off by sounding different to the others. It sounds ominous. It speeds up soon enough, but when it slows back down every note of the main riff hits like an angry giant’s footstep. The song and the album close out on a washed-out piano tinkling sadly before being interrupted by a sudden synthesiser squeal that sounds like an attempt to mimic a record scratch – a fitting way to cap things off.
It’s understandable for a band to want to preserve a particular sound that works for them, especially if there’s been a considerable gap between releases. With The Physical World, Death from Above 1979 manages to replicate the same basic dance-punk formula that made the duo famous a decade earlier. Song after song of distorted bass and crisp percussion does sound good at first, but after the first few tracks of that it ends up taking some significant tweaking of the formula to make a song stand out. Whether it’s the backing vocals on Trainwreck 1979 or the change in tone on the title track, the songs need more than just raw musical energy to work. Despite its flaws, it’s still a lively, fast-paced album so I definitely recommend it if you want something fun to dance to.