If you take 10 years off between records, you might as well be starting from scratch. That was certainly the case for Death from Above 1979, whose first album (2004’s You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine) helped define the dance-punk years with its jet-powered collection of thrashable love songs. That record was rightly beloved and, after the band’s 2006 breakup, seemed destined to exist as a singular artifact of its trucker-hatted, mp3-blogged time.
That’s what made The Physical World, the surprise 2014 reunion record from the Canadian dance-punk duo, such a minor miracle. Here was a return that embraced the punishing sonics that earned the band its cult, while at the same time leveraging a decade’s worth of maturity and studio acumen into songs that, while never totally surpassing the classics, signaled an evolution worth noticing.
At the time, Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler were adamant that fans wouldn’t have to wait another decade before hearing from them again. Three years later, they’ve made good on that promise; in August, the pair announced that, in addition to dropping the “1979” from their name, they’d finished their third record. Aside from new songs, Outrage! Is Now also gives fans a new experience: a follow-up record that comes while the previous release is still (relatively) fresh in mind.
One fact that’s been true on all DFA records remains so on this one: at their best, Grainger and Keeler still make a compelling case for the title of “brawniest-sounding two-piece this side of Lightning Bolt.” Their best evidence comes in opener “Nomad”, which finds the two laying down snarling riffs and martial beats that, when combined with Grainger’s piercing voice, unfold like a Rush song played on a stick of dynamite.
Once perhaps unthinkable for the band that wrote “Romantic Rights”, this classic rock comparison suits the latter-day DFA, for both good and ill. When the band’s excursions into adjacent subgenres work, they feel like second nature, as with the menacing double bass pedal of “Moonlight” or the sludgy metal blasphemy of “Holy Books”. Elsewhere, like on the woozy “Statues”, Keeler fades down the stretch, leaving listeners with a song that sounds like a Guns N’ Roses B-side that’s missing most of its overdubs. Keeler often feels reined in on Outrage! Is Now, which makes the rare moments when he does let rip (like his pent-up solo on the solid single “Freeze Me”) satisfying and frustrating in equal measure.
Thematically, the band falters, largely abandoning their penchant for bruised and bruising love songs in favor of social commentary packed with all the insight and nuance of a Facebook comments section. “Never Swim Alone” is a nadir, a half-baked, half-glam condemnation of vapidity that somehow managed to sound vapid itself (thanks in part to a truly regrettable American Idol name-check that would’ve already felt dated in 2002).
Despite the incendiary promise of the album’s title, title track “Outrage! Is Now” also fails to live up, with Grainger laying down some too-cool-for-school equivocating before finally suggesting the only thing worth being mad about is the fact that people are so angry these days.
Claiming that rage is just a fad in 2017 is a bold move, but one that could bear fruit if the rest of the song did anything interesting to back up the provocation. Instead, Grainger and Keeler opt for a slow-burner, one that spends three and a half minutes simmering without ever fully boiling over into something greater. It’s all promise and very little payoff, a knock that could be applied to a majority of the songs on this record.
In the press release for this record, Grainger returns to the theme of evolution, too, calling the songs on Outrage! Is Now “the sound of us pushing at the walls.” However, this apparent quest for new sounds produced Death from Above’s belated sophomore slump, a collection of songs that finds the duo pulled in directions that play against their strengths and makes them sound, for the first time, a little dull.
Maybe they stored all of their songwriting power in the 1979, or maybe their partnership takes longer than three years to recharge. Grainger and Keeler certainly have the chops to produce another world-burning record. It just may take until 2027 to get there.
Essential Tracks: “Nomad”, “Freeze Me”, and “Holy Books”