The French electro duo Justice may be this year’s fresh new dance music hope/hype, but the music on †, their just-leaked debut album, only barely qualifies as dance music. On a purely physical level, it’s nearly as tough an album to listen to as anything I’ve heard from the No Fun Fest axis in recent years. The duo doesn’t just ignore old dance constructs like flow and build and sweep; they actively work to sabotage them, pushing instead toward compression and distortion and disruption, doing everything they can to smash their own momentum. Everything falls all over itself. Melodies lumber awkwardly when they could swoop and soar, in-the-red synths always seem to be on the verge of decomposing completely, disco strings divebomb in from nowhere and disappear just as suddenly. The whole thing is a seething, violent mess, and even in its most accessible moments it never lets up. A few weeks ago, I had this to say about Justice: their “midrange-addled filter-metal bangers have the same problem as their Skint Records spiritual forbears: they’ve got coked-up delirium down, but they don’t have a whole lot to offer beyond that.” I was more right about Justice than I originally thought: † doesn’t just exploit the adrenal exhilaration of coke; it also wallows in the gritted-teeth edginess that comes with the drug, a celebratory sort of stress. One song is actually called “Stress,” and it’s a perfect case in point, a jagged pileup of looped, layered, diced Bernard Herrmann strings that wriggle and dart and pound like jackhammers, eventually making room for sirens and dentists’-drill sound-effects. Seriously, I can’t listen to this record without first gritting my teeth. It’s chaotic and assaultive and relentless, and, um, I sort of like it.
The album, I’ve found, improves enormously if you imagine it as a filter-disco equivalent to the Shop Boyz’ “Party Like a Rockstar.” Like that novelty-rap summer-jam, Justice swipe all the most obvious signifiers of rock, and the result ends up closer to a Ritalin-addled 11-year-old’s idea of rock than anything the genre itself has resembled since 1989 or so. Justice pull riffs and tricks from power-metal, crunching their synths triumphantly and even flipping an Iron Maiden song title on “One Minute to Midnight.” That emphasis on anarchic, riled-up hedonism makes for an oddly unified album. Parts of † sound something like late-90s Daft Punk if they’d been forced to record at early-80s basement-hardcore levels of fidelity. Justice like to let pretty synth-swooshes creep in during their tracks’ final minutes, and it’s almost like they’re teasing us, showing us that they could actually make glorious disco-house if they wanted but that they’d prefer to take a sledgehammer to that stuff and smash it up beyond recognition. Still, disco-house always lurks just below their turbulent surfaces, always threatening to break through and shower us in glitter but never quite succeeding. And those pop instincts, the mere presence of which prevent this from turning into Atari Teenage Riot, usually sound better when they’ve been self-consciously mangled than they would if they’d been allowed to take their natural forms. Take, for example, “The Party,” which features vocals from Ed Banger’s resident white-chick rapper Uffie. Uffie is a pretty loathsome character; her cadence suggests an elementary-school guidance-counselor onstage at an assembly rapping about how you should stay in school, and her lyrics are the sort of club-rap pastiche that I can’t imagine anyone still thinks is funny: “Out in the street, all the taxis are showing me love / Cause I shine like a princess in the middle of thugs.” But Justice effectively neutralize Uffie by burying her under layers of distorted but still gleaming electropop and, apropos of nothing, letting a stuttering vocal sample from Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly” stagger around through the tumult like a zombie. A destroyed Uffie, it turns out, is a lot more fun than a fully intact Uffie.
Justice has already had two great pop moments: their Simian remix “We Are Your Friends” and their own “Waters of Nazareth.” Before I heard †, I was skeptical as to whether they’d be able to maintain that propulsion over the length of an entire album. For the most part, they don’t. When “Waters of Nazareth” shows up near the end of the album, its surging oilcan stomp absolutely obliterates everything that’s come before. And I absolutely wouldn’t mind going the rest of my life without hearing “Stress” ever again. But in their reptilian fury, Justice have managed to scrape up a shatteringly brutal record that somehow gratifies more often than it annoys and sometimes does both simultaneously. I’m impressed.