Death From Above 1979 – ‘The Physical World’

After a decade away, the noisy Toronto duo are back to give modern technology a glorious kicking

In 2004, Britain’s musical landscape was one in which The Libertines were careering towards implosion and the likes of Bloc Party and Razorlight were readying themselves to replace them. Across the Atlantic, in a dark corner of Toronto’s hardcore scene, two hairy men were doing something completely different, crafting a fast and heavy new noise that would become a cult hit, and go on to have a resounding impact on the decade of music that followed.

Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F Keeler combined furious math-rock riffs and ass-shaking basslines on their debut full-length ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’. What we didn’t know at the time was that it would be DFA 1979’s last record for a decade. The duo split in 2006, driven apart by those dreaded ‘musical differences’. Over the next few years, their only album joined The Rapture and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in inspiring a generation of producers, including the likes of Skrillex, to believe that dance-punk was a genre worth getting excited about. However, we probably have DFA 1979 to blame for Swedish dance overlord Avicii thinking that Jon Bon Jovi and System Of A Down frontman Serj Tankian are suitable collaborators for his new album too, so it’s not all good news.

Since the split, they‘ve tinkered away on their own projects – Grainger with his power-pop band The Mountains and later a new wave-inspired solo album ‘Yours To Discover’, Keeler with his electro duo MSTRKRFT – but it wasn’t the same. And even when they announced their reformation in 2011, one question remained: could they put their differences aside and write new music? 

Good news: ‘The Physical World’ is magnificent. Hulking opener ‘Cheap Talk’ is vintage DFA 1979. They clearly haven’t forgotten the pounding thrash that made them great, but it’s not all cheap thrills and weighty beats. What makes it such a rewarding repeat listen are the layers of meaning that emerge like Renaissance paintings appearing in television static. Taken together, the songs on this record are hymns to lost innocence – both for us as individuals navigating adolescence and sexual politics (‘Virgins’, ‘Nothin’ Left’) and for society as it slides irreversibly into the digital age, losing touch with the physical world of the title. Most pointedly, the lyrics of ‘Always On’ reincarnate Kurt Cobain into a world of Facebook likes, YouTube-dictated radio playlists and Spotify-driven charts and assume he’ll top himself before sundown. “If we brought Kurt back to life, there’s no way he would survive,” Grainger sings. “No way, not a day.”

‘White Is Red’ – a rare ballad that combines a Springsteen-style road story about a heartbreaker named Frankie with a Sonic Youth squall of noise – is the album’s best song, and somehow lives up to both of those high-water marks. It’s also the record’s most accessible, straightforward moment, which could, if the band wanted it to, turn into a big Killers-style sing-along stadium anthem. Lead single ‘Trainwreck 1979’, ‘Nothin’ Left’ and the meat-tenderiser beat of ‘Government Trash’ pick up the pace again in the album’s second half. It’s all kept tight and succinct, with only a few tracks straying over the three-minute mark.

The 10-year break has obviously served DFA 1979 well. They have returned hungry and wired to shake us out of our digital comas. Put down your fucking phone for one minute and give yourself over to the visceral power of their music. There’s a big, bad planet out there, and it’s all the better for having ‘The Physical World’ in it.