Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
It should be no secret to readers that I’m a fan of Death From Above. We recently ran an interview with lead singer/drummer Sebastien Grangier and a positive review of their latest album Outrage is Now. I’m a sucker for contradictions and tension and DFA provide a lot of both. While bassist Jesse Keeler plays the bass like a student of the most intense doom metal bands Grangier’s drumming is dance and punk oriented–his vocals are high pitched and soulful. The rock/electro dance formula now dominates alternative radio–albeit a much safer model.
I’m a fan and yet, I went into their show on Monday night at Upstate Concert Hall with very few expectations. I’d been alerted earlier in the week to the fact that the concert hadn’t sold well at all and that the band had decided to play on. I encountered the band on Saturday in Boston as my wife and I looked for a quick meal before seeing Queens of the Stone Age at the Agganis Arena. They were playing Paradise Rock Club just a block from the arena.
It struck me then, just how much things have changed since DFA were in their heyday–before they broke up and disappeared for 10 years. In 2005, I was interning for Metroland and music blogs were all abuzz about DFA’s planned follow ups (multiple) to their critically acclaimed debut full-length You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. The band was finishing up a tour headlined by Nine Inch Nails who were supporting With Teeth–the first album they’ed released since 1999’s The Fragile. QOTSA were touring behind Lullabies to Paralyze their fourth album but their key follow up to their smash breakthrough Songs For the Deaf.
QOTSA lead singer Josh Homme had fired bassist Nick Oliveri and the album was thought by many to be missing Oliveri’s bass skills and aggression. Then suddenly, at the end of the tour, DFA broke up. The blogs were abuzz again that perhaps DFA bassist Jesse Keeler might join the band. Homme has since admitted that Keeler was set to to record bass for their next album Era Vulgaris but that the scheduling didn’t work out.
From there both members of DFA pursued their own projects on a much smaller scale than DFA.
Suddenly in 2011 the band announced their reunion. “Jesse and I have decided that what we can do together should not be denied. Together again, as was always the intention, as a collaboration. The collision of two different worlds. As this all takes shape, we will reveal it to you,” Grangier wrote.
They entered a new era where Queens of the Stone Age were now one of the biggest bands in the world, where dance-rock was pase and the notoriously slothful NIN had already retired, unretired and released around five albums.
DFA’s first post-reunion release hit in Sept. 2014 and while the push and pull of the band was apparent with Grangier pushing for more of an electronic vibe and Keeler slamming out searing bass riffs. But most of the dance-punk feel of You’re a Woman was gone. The band’s default was now middle-of-the-road alterna-rock.
Their latest album is more of a return to form but it feels like it might be too late. Opening for Queens of the Stone Age on Saturday was Royal Blood–a british two-piece that plays thumping metallic blues–a band that has acknowledged it was inspired by DFA. Grangier addressed that comparison in a recent interview with NME.
“NME: So as it gets passed on to the other end of the timeline, is it a head-fuck when you hear bands like Royal Blood going on to become huge and saying that you guys were a direct influence?
“When I listen to Royal Blood, it’s bass and drums, but I don’t hear the link really musically. To me they sound more Queens of the Stone Age or something. Our approach to rock music is to subvert it in a way. Anytime something approximates the blues or Zeppelin or anything like that, that’s when I want to turn right. I don’t want to head straight towards those things. That’s kind of how we approach it. Maybe we’d be fucking selling out the O2 if we ripped off Led Zeppelin.”
With all that in mind, I approached Monday’s show expecting to see a band defeated. The crowd at Upstate Concert Hall was sparse but excited. Grangier and Keeler got off to a slow start playing songs off their two recent releases the metallic stomper “Nomad” and the seething but disjointed “Virgins.” Behind his drumkit, tricked out with samplers and voice effects, Grangier seemed labored, he strained to hit notes, his voice cracking. Keeler played his bass like a bored child–restrained and underutilized.
On “Outrage! Is Now” Grangier abandoned his kit singing with his back turned to the audience as a synth bass line shook the room. He channeled Kanye West, singing, “Let’s discuss, without disgust,” until Keeler’s distorted bass line erupted.
A keyboard issue interrupted their big single “Freeze Me.” After a few other missteps and Grangier’s vocal issues, I felt like the pair might just end it there. But they soldiered on. Grangier addressed the low turnout, saying touring sucks “if you don’t get to play.”
That’s when things got really good. The pair tore into tracks off of You’re a Woman–Grangier delivering high notes while stomping out high-speed disco beats. A pit broke out with fans flinging themselves into the air in time to the music. Tracks like “Black History Month,” “Trainwreck 1979” and “Romantic Rights” forced the pair into strict unison–one juggernaut of funky, snarky punk rock. They turned “The Physical World” into a crushing doom-metal finale “Can I say something that might sound wrong? Maybe we’ve been too free too long!” The song came together as the perfect amalgam of the pair’s influences: Keeler’s sludge tendencies shining until Grangier’s punk beat drags him forward and a vocoder covers his voice with a sweet pop sheen.
The pair exited stage left sweaty and thankful. The rowdy crowd shouted for their return and the band did just that–fielding requests. “This is gonna be real informal,” joked Grangier. Keeler apologized for a cancelled gig with Awolnation and the crowd responded appreciative and sincerely. “Blood on Our Hands” and “Frankenstein” saw the modest pit explode again. When the band departed this time the crowd was grateful and the band seemed sincerely thankful for the small but devoted audience. DFA may explode once again, or perhaps their time has passed–either way they did their job on Monday night.