Welcome to Midnight Juggernauts, and to their debut album of upbeat electro-rock-dance mayhem. OK, this debut album’s not exactly new – it was released in the group’s native Australia in August 2007 – but it broadcasts its entrance to the wider U.S. electro-listening-public with the fanfare of a Justice support and a few rowdy CMJ shows. Like Shy Child, Midnight Juggernauts have been given a concerted crack at the American (and UK) market, signing with established labels (for the Juggernauts it’s Astralwerks) for a wider release of an album that has been around overseas for a while already. Leaves you feeling somewhat behind trends, and wondering to yourself who it was, exactly, who decided dance-rock’s suddenly cool again? That’s not at all fair to Shy Child, whose keytar-infused punk has a compelling kinetic momentum of its own. But Midnight Juggernauts are something more cynical.
Live, the trio has floundered in the past, becoming pre-occupied with the muddy sound of their multiple-tracked guitars, although they have supported Justice; did I mention that? The intersection of those two fan-bases should, you suspect, merge quite well. And the live experience at least tells us where the group places emphasis, something clear from the beginning: “Ending of an Era”, the opening song off Dystopia, establishes the stomping 4/4 rock drumbeat that will become exceedingly familiar over the course of the record.
If there’s a measure of disappointment in Dystopia when taken as a whole, it’s mainly because its first taste was so thrilling. “Shadows” was released on the group’s 2006 Secrets of the Universe EP, and may be familiar to some American ears from its inclusion in Cut Copy’s Fabriclive.29 mix from that year. Back in the heady electro days of ’06, “Shadows” (and its follow-up single “45 & Rising”) was refreshingly Gothic, channeling late ’70s Bowie into electro-rock without forgetting what makes a pop song memorable. Listening again now, it’s still the best thing the group’s done – all smothered darkness and a shuddering, haunted thrill. Nothing new has the same impact. Later singles “Ten Thousand Leagues” and “Road to Recovery” show the wear of bottom-of-the-barrel, recycling percussion effects and timbres from earlier singles. They have become popular as much because they remind us of what we liked about the first singles than for their own quality.
At least “Into the Galaxy” comes close. Its vague Cut Copy vibe is mined for as much stomping electro pop as possible; from these simple elements – a shouted verse, a harmonic, spacey chorus – something really effective emerges. But as the record wears on, the formulaic way the group constructs its songs begins to show, and the initial energy wanes. The lugubrious vocals drift flat, and the short synth interludes (on tracks like “Nine Lives”) feel like they’re assembled more out of obligation than with the passion that rock instrumentation’s supposed to bring to dance music.
And that might be the biggest problem with Dystopia. You hope that incorporating live drums and guitars into an essentially electronic compositional style can bring something new and thrilling to an otherwise fairly familiar genre. Cut Copy was certainly able to do that with In Ghost Colours. In comparison, Dystopia seems short on ideas and still without the driving sense of identity that Justice exploded out of the blocks with. It’s not all bad – the production’s tight and technically impressive, and the sonic landscape of the album full and enveloping. But when played through multiple times, Dystopia isn’t really exciting. The last time I heard it, I had the album cued up in front of the new one by the Black Ghosts. As soon as “Anyway You Choose to Give It” came on it was clear that the best stuff, even in this genre, is in a different league from most of Dystopia.