By Zac Emery
We all regret a band that we listened to 10 years ago. But me, I regret the band I hadn’t discovered yet. When I first heard Death From Above 1979’s first and only album, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004), the Toronto group had already disbanded. The album offered a groovy, minimalist punk sound without ever touching a guitar. But having grown apart, drummer/vocalist Sebastien Granger and bassist Jesse F. Keeler went their separate ways in 2006. And just as quickly as they had rocked the landscape of Canadian music with their genre-defying dance-punk, they were gone again. It was a blip in music history, and bragging rights for anyone who saw them live in those two years.
In 2011, there were rumours of a reunion. A one-off performance at Austin, Texas music festival SXSW turned into a tour. But a new album seemed unlikely.
Then this past summer, The Physical World was announced. A full decade after You’re a Woman…, the question seemed to be, could they still do it after so much time away?
The Physical World is a more polished album, in the same sense that when you polish your combat boots, they look even more badass. The lead single, “Trainwreck 1979” combines a steady, pumping rhythm in the verses with a subversively pseudo-pop chorus, setting expectations high. It also told us exactly why they decided to come back: “’Cause I want it all/ I can’t get enough.”
The desire for more underscores the album, driving the pair in whole new directions. They experiment, but every track is undeniably Death From Above 1979: distorted bass riffs, high-hat disco beats, and a mixture of angst and sexuality are all still present.
But they’re joined by groove metal influences, existentialism and social commentary—all making it even harder to categorize than their last album.
Album opener “Cheap Talk” is familiar enough not to alienate people, but is also fresh and cynical, declaring, “What he said/ what she said/ it doesn’t really matter in the end.” It’s a good start, but The Physical World is at its best when breaking new ground for the band.
“Always On” mixes a killer hook with scathing commentary on social media (the lyrics “I been losin’ sleep just keepin’ up with what’s become” will sound familiar to Smartphone owners). “Virgins” is a rocking, sexy number that yearns for simpler times with a hint of satire. “White is Red” has the feel of the love ballads every heavy band was making in the 1990s, “Crystal Ball” offers up angular, driving bass lines that you can’t help but love, and the final riffs in “Right On, Frankenstein!” are simply delicious.
All of this builds up to the title track, a truly epic final song. Even with all the surprises leading up to it, nothing prepares us for “The Physical World.” It starts with the bleeps and squeaks of synthesizers and explodes into a prog metal monster, complete with chugging thrash riffs and haunting vocals. The final expression of the song, fading from vengeful bass to a haunting and ethereal piano melody, brings the album to a close with shivers sent down every spine.
If breaking up eight years ago needed to happen for this record to be made, then it was probably the best move Death From Above 1979 ever made. The Physical World is a solid expression of musical, emotional and thoughtful ideas. More importantly, it is sincere in its execution. It lends itself to being listened to, front to back, time and again, and that is a rare treat in the age of digital singles-shuffled playlists.