November 2, 2011

Test Spins: Justice, Audio, Video, Disco

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Electronic music has always been portrayed as music for the night and cities,” says Xavier de Rosnay of electro-duo Justice, “so we were seduced by the idea of making an electronic record for the day and countryside.” The concept of a pastoral daytime album that’s behind Justice’s second effort, Audio, Video, Disco, is a conceptual underpinning that deserves to be commended. They are moving away from the things that made their first album, Cross, so successful, and taking a musical risk. But Justice, for reasons unknown, attempts in AVD to replicate the same nighttime party scene in Cross for the daytime, resulting in a work that makes no sense. In addition, because Justice has focused much of their energy on concept, they devote little focus on execution and create an album that is awkward and limp, lacking direction or an audience.

That is not to say that the masterminds behind Justice, Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé, are untalented musicians. Both are extremely accomplished producers who use countless tiny samples in the style of The Avalanches’ Since I Left You and DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, to carefully assemble their songs. The results are exquisite and cleanly produced songs, but Justice’s real talent is their integration of clean production with the kitsch they blatantly depend on to create a sound that’s both unique and fun. Unfortunately, on AVD the songs sound like carefully created tchotchkes, not quite manufactured for commercial appeal, but also not for the sake of the duo’s self-expression either. The album wavers between the two, unsure of what it wants to accomplish.

“Horsepower” starts the album with a burst of energy, replete with classic Justice elements like an overblown bass, anthemic hooks and operatic valor. It’s the only song on the album that you can actually blast out; it contains energy that the later songs desperately need. The same can’t be said for the song immediately following it: “Civilization.” It is a blatant attempt at broad commercial appeal, and the song sounds manufactured and out of place for the band. Backed by hooks that sound like they came from the Pile of Generic Tunes hidden at the back of every major record label, the weak vocals in “Civilization” do the song no favors.

The weak vocals on “Civilization,” instead of being the exception, are unfortunately the norm in AVD. On “Ohio” Justice decides to emphasize male vocals which the electronics, though lacking energy, still easily overpower. This is in contrast to Cross, where the duo employed vocals at the right places, but more importantly knew when to not use vocals and let the instrumentals do their thing. In AVD, all the vocals seem not just useless and cheesy, but in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Aside from the vocals, the bigger problem with “Ohio” is that it lacks direction. Halfway into the song when the repeating vocals have lost their novelty, Justice suddenly shifts into a cheesy prog hook before bringing back the vocals again, as if they are unsure where the song is headed. This unfortunately happens in too many songs in AVD: “Parade,” for example, has a fake-out transition that is executed so badly that it leaves one wondering whether there was an issue with their soundboard. It makes the album extremely inconsistent, creating awkward breaks within music that make it seem that Justice forgot what they were doing. The transitions from “Parade” to “Newlands” to “Helix” sound suspiciously like the commercials that pop up every few songs in Spotify. The album would feel and sound the same even when it is played on shuffle; the tracklisting itself is as jumbled as the prog hooks.

And that’s another thing that one can’t leave out in a review of AVD: prog. Touted by Justice themselves as part of their major musical shift, Justice’s adaptation of prog-rock in AVD is sadly not the same kind of prog-rock that King Crimson filled stadiums with in the 70s. Prog-rock is all about immersiveness and concept, codified best in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Justice’s implementation of prog strips elements in favor of cramming as many melodies as possible into one song. By employing short bursts of melody after melody, the songs are unmemorable and difficult to enjoy. It’s a messy product of prog rock without the prog. Ironically, the one element that was supposed to complement their album became a drawback.

The title track and final track starts off with some promise, with a simple melody that transforms into a few chords, a drumbeat, and a bass line before building up to… nothing. Instead they decide to repeat “Audio, Audio, Audio, Video Disco” over and over, again using vocals to ruin instrumentals, before abruptly stopping. What was the purpose of this song? How does it fit in with the rest of the album? These are questions that Justice never answer throughout the entire album. They don’t have to, and shouldn’t, come out with a second Cross, but Justice has significantly underachieved with AVD.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng