Death From Above 1979
9 Dec 2004: Lee's Palace Toronto
An older couple stood in a dark spot at the side of the club, smiling. The only ones with grey hair and sensible clothing, it wasn’t too hard to figure out who they were: Somebody in Death From Above 1979 was playing for Mom and Pop. Lest I be a cause of familial discord, I’m happy to report that these folks had reason to be proud, as Sebastien Grainger and Jesse Keeler, in front of a hometown crowd, put on a thunderous performance.
The most immediately striking thing about the band is, simply, the way they made me feel. I’m not talking about “feeling” in the sense of emotion or sentiment; I’m talking about the pure, physical sensation of their sound and its effects on the body. Every fat, bass chord made my heart skip and each thwack of the drums reverberated deep in my bowels. These two will never have to worry about a lack of audience engagement—the sheer assaulting volume of their music makes apathy physically impossible.
Blood and bowels aside, the quality of the music came across almost as loud as the volume—I’m not sure it’s right to distinguish between the two. The band, Keeler on bass and keyboards (it was his parents) and Grainger on vocals and drums, created an interesting, unmistakable tension. They tied emotional insecurity, in their lyrics, to distinctively masculine and aggressive sounds. On songs such as “Romantic Rights” and the cheekily titled “Pull Out,” Grainger howled blunt lyrics about sex. Death From Above 1979 will never be accused of making subtle music, but then sex and love aren’t necessarily subtle issues.
With shaggy haircuts, porn-star facial hair, and crotch-grabbing, riff-rocking antics, the duo revelled in all the clichés of macho rock. For a band intent on playing heavy music for heavy emotions, the posturing and presentation of the music created a strange disconnect between form and content.
There were times when I was unsure if the band was playing with ideas of contradiction and deconstruction or just playing. The effect was akin to having a guy beat you up because you called him insensitive. If you’re going to holler over a holy racket, you might as well be singing about dragons. Losing their message in the midst of their music is something the band might have to start worrying about.
There are at least two things that the band need not worry about though: volume and riffage. When Keeler dialled in his Sasquatch belch of a bass tone and Grainger pounded away at his drums, questions of intentionality were swept away by the pure adrenaline rush of loud, balls-out rock and roll.
Grainger’s cymbals found room to dance in the eye of his hurricane and even when Keeler put down his bass and switched to a bank of synths, the righteous bludgeoning continued unabated. And let’s hear it for a band creative enough to come up with a fresh use for the talkbox. Having been diva’d to death in Cher’s wake, it was a relief to hear robo-vocals sound cool, and not in the parodist manner so beloved of groups indebted to Daft Punk.
DFA1979 are about as far from robotic as modern rock music gets. There’s no way to leave one of their shows not knowing they have balls; but whether or not they have brains is a tougher question to answer. It may not make their parents proud to hear it, but these guys are a sure thing for a one-night stand. But if it’s a long-term relationship you’re looking for, they still have something to prove.