Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Justice – the new Daft Punk or just another electro band?

French duo Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay burst onto the electronic music scene in 2006 with their UK Top Twenty hit ‘We Are Your Friends’, a remix of Indie band Simian’s hit ‘Never Be Alone’. The song became an instant club hit, and won the MTV Europe Music Award for Best Video, but for many Justice remain an unknown quantity. Their debut album †, commonly known as Cross, was released in 2007, pre-dating the current ‘electro-fad’ by almost a year and a half. Musically Cross drastically different to any ‘electronic’, ‘new-rave’ or ‘dance’ music around currently, and its critical success makes the comparison to their fellow countrymen, House pioneers Daft Punk sadly inevitable. If anything its better that Justice remain a niche band, exposed only to a select few, as so many promising bands have fallen foul of excessive airplay and become nothing more than commercial radio fodder. After all it’s always nice to feel you’ve discovered something different, fresh, exciting, and most importantly original. All of these apply to Cross, which is quite a discovery, managing to sound commercially viable and artistically unique. Perhaps due to the nature of the genre, or the fact that most electronic music is commonly enjoyed in clubs alongside copious amounts of alcohol, most dance or electro albums tend to be overlooked, ignored, quickly-forgotten, or simply not very good. It is remarkable therefore that Justice have managed to steer clear of such a fate, and managed to avoid the dreaded ‘one-hit wonder’ tag with Cross, as it is normally the singles most people remember. I highly doubt people flocked in their masses to purchase Darude’s 2001 offering ‘Before the Storm’, but I’m sure there are very few yet to hear perennial club favourite and dance mega-hit ‘Sandstorm’.

Cross however is remarkably consistent; there is no filler and every track manages to flow effortlessly into the next, whilst managing to sound unique, which is no mean feat for a debut album of this genre. Its inclusion in the prestigious book ‘1001 Albums to Hear Before You Die’ is a testament to such qualities, and reflects the ease with which it can be listened to; whether going out, staying in, chilling out, stressed or happy it is a perfect accompaniment. Whilst some dance artists such as Basshunter and Cascada choose thumping bass-lines and predictable melodies with which to fill their disappointing albums, Justice seem to have wanted to provide an array of material, themes and styles rather than just regurgitate the same basic track twelve times. The most obviously commercial track from the album is undoubtedly ‘D.A.N.C.E’, an incredibly catchy number which according to the band is “about and dedicated to Michael Jackson”. The “lisping playground chants” pay homage to the days of the Jackson 5, and make D.A.N.C.E an instantly recognisable party song. Its description as ‘pure musical Ambrosia’ is fitting given the song’s playful quality and childlike appeal, and complement the intermittent synth hooks perfectly. According to de Rosnay the intention behind Cross was to create an ‘opera-disco’ album, which is evident in the band’s debut solo single ‘Waters of Nazareth’, released in 2005 and championed by many DJs, but mostly ignored by the musical mainstream. Although it “does not sound like disco when you hear it for the first time”, in the words of de Rosnay, “if you forget that everything is distorted, the bass lines are just really disco patterns”. Distortion is very much the operative word with which to describe the murky Waters of Nazareth, which packs the album’s biggest punch. Its combination of ‘a crunchy church organ with a bottom-heavy synthesizer rolling in gravel’ gives the song a deeply mysterious and almost gothic feel.

Opening track Genesis is not so much a “sludgy techno throb that feels not so much expertly crafted as messily stapled together out of twitching blocks of sound”, a per Louis Patterson of BBC Six Music, but rather a comparatively tame intro aiming to draw the listener in. Justice understandably want their debut to be as accessible as possible without compromising its artistic integrity, and Genesis shows them bridging the gap between commerciality and art perfectly; it hints at what the rest of the album has to offer without giving away too much, and whilst it wouldn’t win awards, is at least as credible as any electronic music around currently. ‘Let There Be Light’ is another murky, distorted offering sounding remarkably similar to a jellyfish being given electro-shock treatment, and is the sort of track that would implore most parents to ask whether or not the CD has been badly scratched. ‘Newjack’ is a clever twist on old-school funk, which is combined with a gnarled, jittery accompaniment to create a track bizarrely complicated on the surface but actually remarkably simple, whilst the two-track salvo of ‘Phantom’ and the imaginatively titled ‘Phantom II’ which manage to sound at times exactly the same and at others completely different. Phantom creates the sensation of falling, as the synth groans and squeals, creating a dark and sinister atmosphere, whilst Phantom II is the calm after the storm, yet still sounds as if it “were concocted in a cold, cavernous atmosphere”. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that both songs feature samples of ‘Tenebrae’, the theme song of the 1982 horror film of the same name. The album slowly becomes more and more gothic and mysterious through ‘Valentine’, the type of track Dracula would be seen to request at a London club night, with its haunting vocals and horror-film-esque playground ride synths, and ‘The Party’ which incorporates a cute-voiced rapper coaxing her friends to get "drunk and freaky fried" over a keyboard potentially lifted from Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants”. The Party illustrates Justice’s ability to mix things up; rather than produce an album consisting solely of high-energy dance numbers, de Rosnay and Gaspard manage to adapt their trademark synths and mid-tempo beats and try to tell a different story with each song. Such qualities draw comparisons to 2008’s breakthrough act MGMT, with the ‘get drunk and freaky fried’ call straight out of the Ting Ting’s debut ‘We Started Nothing’.

DNVO’s disco handclaps and comic book style ‘zaps’, combined with the sort of bouncy vocals that characterised 80’s new-wave acts show Justice’s commitment to the ‘disco-opera’ concept, whilst Stress provides the album’s creative high-point, and “is perhaps the best track here” as Louis Patterson suggests. Its sound suggests the coming of a terrible apocalypse, with the brutally heavy, super-dense concoction of air-raid sirens and whirling violins the physical embodiment of paranoia, fear, tension and stress, as the name implies. The way in which the track builds up to a crescendo, before continuing in the same vein supplements this idea. Patterson’s assertion that it “sounds like nothing less than the bathroom scene from Psycho set to beats” is certainly an accurate and fair assessment. Final track ‘One Minute to Midnight’ signals the the point for sombre, in keeping with the previous tracks, reflection on without a doubt one the best albums of 2007. Many will continue to ignore Justice, whether intentionally or not, whilst journalists will be unable to resist the allure of using the laughably simple and inaccurate comparison to Daft Punk. As Louis Anderson correctly states “this big, bold record is the sound of leaders – not followers”, and Justice have certainly proved that they don’t need any tips on how to achieve originality. For those tired of lazy, half-baked efforts from mainstream acts who long ago sacrificed any artistic integrity, look to Justice, whose follow up next year will either build on the excellent foundation of Cross, or condemn de Rosnay and Augé to excessive rotation on ‘Virgin Radio’ or ‘the Hits’, and signal the end of two very promising careers indeed.

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