The Beating of a Million Drums
It’s been a long time coming.
More or likely this is the sentiment of the fans of Justice, whose highly anticipated sophomore record has come four long years after the French duo dropped their phenomenal debut record Cross. That record, though by no means a complete revitalization of the house genre, took a genre that was in many ways getting old fast (Human After All, anyone?) and made it sound fresh. Cross was a kinetic, in-your-face piece of work, as it took all of the conventional expectations of house and threw in heaping spoonfuls of glitch, blistering noise, ‘70s pop, and disco. It was by no means the most approachable record of its kind, but in all of its various experiments it succeeded. Even on the initially disarming songs, notably the crazed, nightmarish “Stress”, the hook always overpowered. The random bursts of static noise could disrupt anyone dancing to the music, but in the end those bursts added to the groove instead of subtracting from it.
It’s interesting then that given the success of Cross, Audio, Video, Disco takes an entirely different sonic turn from that record. This album isn’t miles removed from Cross, but it differs notably in its emphasis on the stylings of classic rock instead of the club-ready beats of house. This is the kind of music more likely to echo from high stadium ceilings instead of throbbing across packed dance floors. It’s a change that seems likely to divide the fanbase that drew to the band as a result of Cross.
Anyone willing to listen to the record without any preconceived ideas about what the band might need to be after Cross should do so. Audio, Video, Disco is an exceptional followup to the band’s debut, and in drawing from classic rock influences becomes something of a classic in its own right. The album is a strong contemporary statement that sounds of a great classic rock record and this music begs to be listened to on a good record player like any good rock LP. One can certainly dance to this record in particular moments, but more than likely the power chords and anthemic choruses will induce a good head-banging session.
This description of the band’s new musical direction will no doubt seem odd to those who have listened to the two singles leading up to this record, “Civilization” and the title track. Neither are particularly emblematic of classic rock. The former is an epic electro-rock jam heavy on the bass, the latter an unfortunate choice for a single, as it’s both the album’s weakest track and not entirely representative of the album as a whole. The album overall walks a pretty distinguishable line between the newer, less synth-heavy music and the stuff that most directly references much of the work done on Cross. The perfectly named album opener “Horsepower”, an opening statement as powerful as “Genesis” was on Cross, features some of the powerful beats and hooks that were so prominent on the band’s debut, though it goes about it in a different fashion. While it is no doubt an “electronic” track, it has a more organic, bright sound to it than the dark synths present on Cross.
The song also points to the classic rock influence that more or less dominates the record, even though electronic instruments are often at the forefront. The album does have two moments of clear reference to classic rock bands: “Newlands” references AC/DC, and the post-chorus riff of “On’N'On” sounds quite like Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. The former suits the band very well, as Justice have always succeeded not in complex, proggy riffing (interestingly enough, the album’s promo kit references prog rock, though for the most part this isn’t present on the album), but instead straightforward, bold chords and riffs. The latter moment comes rather unexpectedly, but it fits in quite brilliantly with the song. Neither of these moments come off as pastiche (though the lead riff of “Newlands” does veer dangerously close to “For Those About to Rock”), but instead as proudly wearing one’s references on his shoulder. Justice have always carried themselves and their music in the manner of rock stars, and they absolutely nail it.
For those inclined to favour the material on Cross rather than the material here, there’s still plenty to love. “Canon” sounds something like Justice qua Philip Glass, with insistent arpeggiated chords winding their way in and out of the song. The brilliant “Helix” is a straight-up disco jam that harkens to the ‘70s while also recalling the schizoid editing of “Newjack” on Cross. The pounding beat of “Parade” is indicative of Justice’s skill at crafting a good beat, even though that song throws in some things not present on Cross, notably a flute part. Some of the instrumental tracks like “Parade” and “Brainvision” aren’t as strong as the instrumental work the band has done before (though thankfully the band’s vocal collaborations have much improved; the much-derided “The Party” is nowhere to be found here), but they still help add to the overall success of the record.
Audio, Video, Disco is a fine record in its own right; however, it is fair to say that comparisons to Cross are inevitable. (There are, of course, many in this very review). This shouldn’t have anything to do with this record living in the shadow of its predecessor; it should instead show the progression the band is making from one great record to another. Cross was a brilliant debut, but, just as well, Audio, Video, Disco is a brilliant sophomore outing. Some will likely bemoan the band’s sonic shift, which is simultaneously understandable and regrettable. When a band pulls off a debut as good as Cross and then manages to craft a wholly distinct, unique followup, that isn’t a mark of a band abandoning its sound, it’s instead the mark of a band that is progressing for the better. Audio, Video, Disco may not sound like prog rock, but one thing is for sure: it is very much a progressive record. And it rocks.