Death From Above 1979, Scala, London
Tuesday 31 May 2005
Death from Above 1979 are good at shattering expectations. For starters, they give Canada's reputation for being a quiet kind of country a thorough going over. For this infernally sweaty, sold-out gig, Toronto's hot-blooded and hairy DFA'79 set their amps to "shred" and deliver a dense, detailed and ribcage-rattling racket. It's mightily visceral stuff.
More startlingly still, DFA'79 make this sound out of the two members often considered the most interchangeable in a band. While the similarly two-strong White Stripes at least have a guitarist, DFA'79 only have a bassist, Jesse Keeler, who occasionally fiddles with a small keyboard, and a drummer, Sebastien Grainger, who sings with a strangled-banshee wail. (They have a nice Stripes-style line in the mystique of how they met, too. At a gig? In a gay club? On a pirate ship? Keep guessing.)
The results might lack the vivid colour and charisma of the Stripes, but Keeler does wring a formidable degree of differing shapes from his bass. The cover of the duo's debut album, You're a Woman, I'm a Machine, sees them sporting elephant masks, and you fancy that if a pachyderm could play bass guitar, it would come up with something like Keeler's Black Sabbath-sized riffs. Led Zeppelin and Queens of the Stone Age also spring to mind as comparison points, which is pretty good going for an alt-rock band made up of a mere rhythm section.
There is a kind of art-rock streak at DFA'79's core, but they make their music genuinely move. The duo had to change their name from DFA to DFA'79 after legal protests from the NYC disco-punk duo and label DFA, a problem they solved by simply tagging on the year that Grainger was born. The irony is that DFA'79 wouldn't be so out of place on their legal enemy's roster. They sound like straightforward noiseniks as the concert starts, comparable to another duo, the rousing alt-rock festival favourites Lightning Bolt. Gradually, though, the controlled chaos of Grainger's bass-drum pounding and Keeler's fuzz-flavoured bass-bothering gives way to properly propulsive rhythms and beats. It's death-metal disco, in a nutshell.
There's something very dirtily sexual about this mix of grinding and grooves, and it gets both the crowd and the band hot and bothered very quickly. Grainger arrives on stage wearing a preppy diamond-effect pullover, but he's soon stripped to his waist, sweating in sympathy with the crowdsurfers while not missing a beat.
It all ends as it should, too, only an hour after it started, with a barrage of roof-worrying noise, plentiful howling and the dishing out of a beating to an already harassed-looking drumkit. Sure, DFA'79 are a kind of concept band, based on a simple, minimalist conceit. But the results are surprisingly, even startlingly virile and invigorating.
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