Live Review: Death From Above 1979

HMV Forum, London, Wednesday 4th May

A cartoon headstone adorns the backdrop. It reads, “DFA 1979. 2001-2006”. With the band stonewalling interview requests, this might be the closest we get to an answer on whether this [a]Death From Above 1979[/a] reunion is just a temporary jaunt down memory lane. For now, though, it hardly matters. The rule that forces every band that ever existed to reform, usually for money, may be feeding a frenzy of nostalgia that stifles new talent. But every so often, it yields a gem. DFA 1979’s return is as welcome as it is surprising. After all, the Canadian duo split not because they’d run out of steam, but merely because they hated each other.

Context is everything. When ‘Romantic Rights’ first made DFA 1979 visible on non-hipsters’ radars, the world was sold on two-piece rock bands, thanks to [a]The White Stripes[/a]. But beyond harnessing the format to conjure an unaccountably hefty racket, DFA 1979 couldn’t have been more different. Boy replaced girl, guitar replaced bass, and, crucially, a much spikier spirit was at work. DFA 1979 offered an endearingly roguish, self-mocking take on extreme male behaviour, in all of its priapic, hedonistic glory. Would Jack White write a song called ‘Go Home, Get Down’? Exactly.

Their lone album was a surge of danceable thrash-punk that only crossed the half-hour mark during its final song. If a psychopathic attitude was indicated by its title – ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’ – the lyrics contained moments of unexpected tenderness: “I will never make you suffer” and “If you love him let him know”. But the record was condemned to cult rather than mainstream acclaim. Like all the best parties, this one ended abruptly and messily, with a 2006 statement admitting that bassist Jesse F Keeler and singing drummer Sebastien Grainger barely spoke any more. For the last date listed in their online gig archive, they were third on the bill in Calgary.

This was no stage-managed exit. But now they’re back and – to an astonishing extent – bigger than ever. The lyric to their album’s title track ran, “Now that it’s over, I love you more and more”, which has proved prophetic. While they’ve been away, their music has found a whole new audience, thanks to influential fans – like [a]CSS[/a], who wrote ‘Let’s Make Love And Listen To Death From Above’ in their honour – and, let’s just admit it, a mobile phone ad.

For night one, the Forum fills with fans too young to have caught the band first time round. They erupt when a halt comes to the warm-up music, and at 9.30pm Keeler and Grainger arrive punctually onstage. This is the last orderly thing that will happen tonight. DFA 1979’s album opens with the sound of portentous piano chords being rudely interrupted by a siren of noise and then the chaotic quasi-speed-metal of ‘Turn It Out’. So too does tonight’s show. Instantly, the venue is transformed into a frantic moshpit. The band are plainly startled, and cues are missed. It doesn’t stop kids singing along not just with the lyrics, but with the riff.

Keeler looks the same as ever, hooded by a thick mop of dark hair. Grainger appears to have had an ’80s makeover: all in white, sporting a vaguely new romantic blond hairstyle. But the sound they make is intact: Grainger sings in a strangulated, yearning wail, while Keeler’s thunderous basslines feed through distortion pedals and a pair of amps. Live, they still sacrifice finesse to wild, brutal power – quite sensibly. Banter flows freely on night one. Grainger hails London as the first city to pay them attention, but remembers being unpopular when he once made fun of [a]Pete Doherty[/a] here. During the encore, even the laconic Keeler is moved to speak, expressing amazement that tickets sold out in 20 minutes after he’d been “hesitant” to sign up for fear of no-one coming.

However, though the goodwill is clearly there, DFA must face a new challenge: how to spin a thin back catalogue into a big headline show. A couple of ‘Heads Up’ EP tracks are aired before the set proceeds to a crowd-pleasing run of album-drawn material and the squalling climax delivered by ‘Romantic Rights’, during which Grainger emerges from his drumkit to prowl the stage. When Grainger introduces ‘Do It!’ as the last song, he’s aghast to hear a chorus of boos. “We didn’t speak for five years! You think we wrote new songs?” They sprint through the track, conclude with a synthesized klaxon parp, and they’re gone. Yet the booing seems to have its effect.

On night two, the set is extended – albeit by one song – and the band’s performance is a little more brisk and businesslike. That seems fitting, given that this audience is older and a little quieter in its reverence, though a curveball is thrown when a sample from Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’ bookends ‘Blood On Our Hands’. Dragged back for an encore, they must rely on a B-side and EP track. ‘Losing Friends’ is wryly – if not accurately – introduced as the only other song the band has written. Rather perfectly, the set concludes with a violent hurtle through B-side ‘If We Don’t Make It We’ll Fake It’, before that backdrop fills our view again. They’ll be back for Reading and Leeds. Don’t get attached. Don’t swap numbers. Just enjoy it while it lasts.

Niall O’Keeffe

Death From Above 1979 on reunion: ‘We’re an undeniable source of power’