When you examine it really carefully, hopefully you come to the understanding that the French electronica duo Justice are really just two guys that know how to market themselves really well. They’ve adopted a style all their own, both musically and visually, that is excessive in most every way. The leather jackets, the sunglasses, the blindingly bright live show (hence the sunglasses), and songs that demand to be played at volumes higher than any doctor would recommend as healthy. The poor mixing doesn’t do much to help them either, but it still doesn’t stop songs like “D.A.N.C.E.” and “DVNO” from becoming indie dance hits and raising their profile to the point where they’re nearly ready to headline a music festival. And to think all that came from just their first record, titled “†” and otherwise pronounced “Cross” when speaking about it. With the other, vastly more popular French electro duo of Daft Punk working on things like film projects or soundtracks to “TRON” sequels with a rare tour date here and there, a certain void has been left these last several years that nobody has really volunteered or attempted to fill. On their way up, Justice certainly aren’t objecting to the positive press they’ve been getting for their music, because even as everything about it feels exploitative and obvious, the band possesses a certain winking charm through it all. Think of them like a really gorgeous person you can’t help but stare at, maybe even lust over, yet after a brief conversation with them you realize they’re dumber than a box of rocks. Not somebody you’d want to spend all your time with or get involved with long term, but if you’re able to shut them up and just stare for awhile, hooking up for a few hours isn’t out of the question. Justice has tended to be the auditory version of that, getting tiresome, obvious and even a little annoying after awhile. When you’re on that dance floor just looking to have fun for a short bit though, their music seems like a great idea. So a few years and a whole lot of touring later, Justice has finally polished off their sophmore record, “AUdio, Video, Disco”. If you were hoping the duo was going to get harder, better, faster or stronger this time, prepare to be sorely disappointed.
Mid-March was when Justice first unleashed the song “Civilization” on the world, primarily as a sign that they were still alive and presumably were preparing a new full album’s worth of material rather than just a one-off single. A portion of it essentially premiered in an Adidas commercial, a sign of exactly what sort of headspace the duo appeared to be in going forward with their careers. While the song still carried many of the laser beam-like synths that made “†” a club favorite, it marked the start of something a little bit different for Justice – closer attention paid to song structure, which ultimately meant more careful development and build-ups to payoffs rather than throwing you into the dance pool from note one. “Civilization” takes a minute of psych-pop swirling before the chorus finally slams into high gear, and even then actual verses calm the dance storm while some smooth piano work closes things out rather gracefully. Across the track’s 3.5 minute duration, the hook only comes around twice. Previous Justice singles pushed the idea that repetition was the key to memorability, which is perhaps why “Civilization” doesn’t particularly stick with you. In fact, barely anything on “Audio, Video, Disco” is pure enough dance pop to strike at the pleasure center of your brain, and that’s a problem when your fans have come to expect exactly that.
There’s some sense of brilliance at the heart of this record though, and it largely stems from how challenging these songs are to enjoy. The title track is a great indicator of exactly how far these guys have come and the perfect display of how they should have composed the entire album. The hook is consistently repeated, but goes through a series of sonic changes that range from heavy dancefloor beat to light and airy and nearly a capella. In essence it is a microcosm of how the full record goes, dancing one minute, held in suspended animation the next, and indulging in progressive fantasies after that. The problem is they make these shifts from track to track instead of within a single song. The primary influence on this record appears to have changed as well, moving away from the club environment just a bit to embrace a much more classic rock feel. Guitars have suddenly become a huge part of Justice’s sound, and inventive beats come second. You can absolutely hear The Cars’ influence on “Newlands” or Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” (with some flute) in “On’n’On” or Roxy Music’s riffage on “Brianvision”. Place some Queen-style march-like beats along with some synths behind these melodies and they become some sort of hybrid that’s not quite dance and not quite rock either. All these genres are blending together anyways these days, right? In essence yes, but such style twists are only effective if you know how to use them right. For the majority of “Audio, Video, Disco”, they do not know how to use them right.
You can’t blame Justice for wanting to expand on their sound and try something new. After all, their sound was somewhat novel on “†”, but if they tried to make the same thing as a sequel it’d sound bland and repetitive. Pop stars and DJ types from Skrillex to Deadmau5 have all adopted a similar style, sharply taking away its more unique aspects. “Audio, Video, Disco” avoids that trap, but winds up ineffective anyways because they fail to Frankenstein these disparate sounds into a genuine juggernaut. What it wants to be and what it is are two different things, and die hard fans of the first record will likely be left out in the cold, wondering what happened to this great electronica duo. For others, this can be considered a stepping stone for Justice. That’s not to say they’ll be trying out full-fledged arena rock next time around, but maybe they’ll use this new record as an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t so they won’t repeat their mistakes next time. Some artists go through growing pains on their way to brilliance, and this just might be theirs. At least the party vibe is still present, even if you can’t always d-a-n-c-e along to the b-e-a-t of every song.