To be blunt: it’s about time that dance music stopped being so self-important.
In the mid-‘90s boom of electronica, dance music made huge mainstream commercial inroads, particularly with the groups that formed the pop-leaning “Big Beat” crowd: Daft Punk was creating solid blacklight burners, the Chemical Brothers brought in pop vocalists to neon siren songs and scored a few Grammys along the way, and the landmark music video for Prodigy’s dark electro hit “Smack My B**** Up” was considered one of the greatest artistic achievements of the MTV era. Right before Y2K hit, both Fatboy Slim and Moby released albums that not only sold in droves, but were adored by critics the world over.
Unfortunately, the aftermath wasn’t so pretty. Catching on the wave, rock groups began incorporating electronic elements into their sound, ranging from the alternative stadium grandeur of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Ava Adore, to the horribly misguided attempt at modernity that underground rockers Girls Against Boys tried with their major label debut (which was an unmitigated disaster). Soon, under the impression that what they were creating was absolutely brilliant, modern dance music began taking a turn for the arty. It’s a move that every DJ succumbed to, and soon albums from Moby, Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, Oakenfold, and just about every other dance act around were all centered around making “statements”, crafting something beyond the confines of mere dance music. The critics didn’t buy it, and neither did the disposable income-wielding public. As the first post-millennial decade began galloping to a close, dance music was dying a bloated death, with the dance spectator idly sitting by, wanting only to shake their ass under the black lights of a club and nothing more.
With Justice, the revolution may well be at hand.
The small French dance duo (formed by ex-graphic designers Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay) rose to prominence in the UK with “Never Be Alone”, a pop-infected banger that sounded like Homework era Daft Punk; in other words, it made you dance—nothing more. Remix offers soon followed, and the group was soon deconstructing and re-pumping tracks from Franz Ferdinand and Britney Spears. In 2005, they remixed a little hit from indie-rockers Simian, and the accompanying slow-motion video (“We are Your Friends”) made headlines at the 2006 MTV Europe Music Video Awards when the clip beat out Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” for Best Video, leading the blinged-out rapper to drunkenly go on stage and launch into an extended rant about why his video should have won. The event made tabloid headlines, but this little incident soon brought Justice into the world spotlight. Two of the members of Simian, long-since disbanded, were so taken with the burgeoning direction of Justice’s dance vision that they just released their own record (the superb Attack Decay Sustain Release), all while riding on a wave of UK club hits. So it’s not surprising that Justice’s debut disc, Cross, emerged shortly after. Together, they’re signaling a return to the roots of why dance music got so popular in the first place: it’s meant to be danced to. Period.
Yet Justice has the upper hand over SMD, here sacrificing minimalism for melodicism and coming out on top. Cross is an album that applies a modern Big Beat aesthetic to an army of ‘80s keyboards. Because of this, the album never sounds dated, but always familiar. The blatant pop excursion “The Party” sounds reminiscent of long-forgotten Brit greats Yazoo: playful keyboards bouncing around guest-vocalist Uffie’s playful come-ons, occasionally interspliced with the chorus of Three 6 Mafia’s rap-hit “Stay Fly” (!). It’s a total headspin, but, like fellow dance duo Basement Jaxx, these out-of-place elements are never so obscure that they’re alienating: every part feels warranted, their existence bizarrely justified by dance music’s self-defined rules of eclecticism (just as how nothing ever looks too crazy when under a strobe light). “Stress” opens like a double-time horror movie theme, all stabbing strings and John Carpenter undertones slowly co-existing before transforming into a Halloween party ass-shaker of the highest order. It totally copies the same horror-pop template that Michael Jackson used for “Thriller”, except here using the sound of drills instead of vocals (which, again, works despite all reason stating otherwise). On the dance-floor, however, none of these appropriations will matter. You’ll be too busy having fun.
The near-simultaneous release of Justice and Simian Mobile Disco’s records automatically warrants comparison, but perhaps what’s most fascinating is how both groups display a near-identical set of influences and admirations. Both groups, for example, can’t help but lend praise to The Go! Team, the cut-n-paste dance collective that use playground chants as the basis for their catchy brand of retro-pop. Simian Mobile Disco loved them so much that they snagged the Go! Team’s MC/lead vocalist Ninja to lay some verses down on their hit single “It’s the Beat”. Justice goes a different route, instead making their own Go! Team song with the playful, bouncy single “D.A.N.C.E.” All the motifs are there: the catchy sing-along chorus, the dated instrumentation, and the infectious feel-good vibe. It’s not as much total stylistic theft as it is true-to-life homage, with an end result that pays off brilliantly. Justice knows what formulas have worked before, and there’s nothing wrong with incorporating other styles into their own irresistible techno-bounce.
However, Cross is not a flawless record. “New Jack” is a track that opens with an early-disco bassline, funky in its own right, but nothing ever really gets done to it. It’s a tune that perpetually feels like it’s building up to something, but the payoff never arrives. Opening track “Genesis” can never fully shake off the Daft Punk comparisons that dog it (even with its great piano bridge), and though “Phantom” works perfectly well as a Chemical Brothers imitation, it’s the disco-string filled “Phantom Part II” that feels half-baked: an inferior rewrite of Part I. It should be noted, however, that none of these songs can be classified as “terrible”. It’s just they’re nowhere near as mind-blowing as, say…
... the rest of the album. “Waters of Nazareth” is a bulldozer of a song, pile-driving you with fuzzed-out bass keys from the get-go and never once losing its momentum. The stuttering cymbals that start “Let There Be Light” help in creating a fantastically melodramatic opening, with jumpy guitars riding the track all the way to a groove-inducing nirvana. The sole piano-pop track, “Valentine”, not only breaks up the album a little bit, but it doubles as a strange crash course in British pop history: the song starts like a keyboard rewrite of the Kinks’ “Village Green Preservation Society” before swiping melody lines with St. Etienne’s “This is Radio Etienne”—all of which creates the theme song to some mid-‘80s British sitcom that exists only in our minds. It’s absolutely head spinning, but Justice wouldn’t want it any other way.
As the mainstream dance artists of yesteryear become more and more involved with making “important” music, the throne of Dance Floor Dominance lies wide open (with Justice and Simian Mobile Disco both making triumphant runs for the crown). In the end, Justice has the stronger record over Simian Mobile Disco, but such a statement is dangerously close to splitting hairs: both albums are fantastic, but their individual achievements are undermined by what these artists are representing: a complete overhaul of modern dance music that’s taking Big Beat back to its roots (an event that couldn’t come soon enough). A techno revolution is at hand, with Justice and Simian Mobile Disco triumphantly leading the way. In the end, Cross wears its mantra right on its sweat-stained sleeve: the revolution will not be tedious—it will be funky as hell.
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// Notes from the Road
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