Dance music has never exactly been a fertile crescent of innovation. Sure, we’ve got our Daft Punks and, more recently, our Hercules & Love Affairs—bands that are just as concerned with being cerebral as they are with getting you to embarrass yourself on the floor—but when you’re dealing with a genre whose primary objective is to get people to (you guessed it) dance, only the best artists are going to be able to avoid losing step and staggering into a wall.
MSTRKRFT are not one of those artists. Fist of God, the Canadian duo’s second LP, is an album that’s far more interested in staking out its territory in a comfortable, well-traveled spot in the modern landscape of dance music than it is with crossing boundaries. To put it another way: you know that hardcore band that some dudes you sort of knew formed during college, the one whose “original” songs were half-assed cut and paste jobs culled from whatever interesting stuff they could find on old Misfits and Black Flag records? Fist of God has a lot in common with that band.
For about half of album opener “It Ain’t Love”, though, things don’t seem so bad. It becomes immediately clear that Jesse Keeler has trashed his vocoder in favor of a revolving door of guest vocalists—a brief glance down the tracklist already has you anticipating a surprise appearance by Ghostface Killah—and the clean Daft Punk synths of The Looks have been entirely corroded by scuzzy Justice-esque distortion, the sort that has you wondering whether you should rave or try to start a mosh pit. The bar of entry for this music is non-existent, it’s instantly energizing, and while it’s already clear that MSTRKRFT aren’t looking to innovate, at least the ride seems like it’s going to be a fun one.
But by the time you get to “Vuvuvu” with its hackneyed breakdown that actually pipes in audience noise, it begins to dawn on you that you’ve been listening to the same basic song for the last four tracks. Each of those electro metal riffs feels criminally similar, you’re wondering why the hell MSTRKRFT didn’t decide to co-opt Justice’s insane glitches along with the rest of the French duo’s sound, and that hulking, dirty synth line that sounded pretty cool at the beginning of this album has remained ever-present and is starting to overstay its welcome, looking through your fridge for more beer when all you really want to do is get some sleep.
So yes, what you hear in the first 38 seconds of Fist of God is basically what you’re going to get for the rest of its 38-minute running time. Well, almost: MSTRKRFT turn the dial down from 11 to about seven when John Legend takes his turn behind the mic, delivering a flavorless piano-led R&B ballad. And Ghost doesn’t even get the chance to make things interesting, as MSTRKRFT quickly and puzzlingly reduce his oversized personality into a sample loop that features the talented emcee doing nothing more interesting than spitting anonymous phrases like “do it hard”, “get that shit up”, and “fucking” over and over again, while a heavy synth line that’s interchangeable with any other heavy synth line on the album jabbers to itself incessantly. It’s a moment that’s absolutely breathtaking in its vapidity, a moment that makes the top 40 garbage blaring over the speakers at your local gym seem erudite.
In a genre filled with faceless artists, MSTRKRFT only manage to stand out by being exceptionally faceless. Fist of God is an album that’s destined not to be listened to, but to be played in the background of parties thrown by aspiring hipsters who view their music as a fashion accessory, not giving it much thought beyond its coolness factor. Because this album does sound cool, unless you actually listen to it. Then you see that it’s all affectation, no substance. Hollow.