The Netflix series Stranger Things has become a massive success precisely because it’s nostalgia done right. It cuts through to the essence of the 80’s but does so without rigidly subjecting itself to the tropes and cliches of the era. The tropes are still there, of course, but they often get flipped on their head – the character you expected to be an antagonistic jerk becomes likeable, the one you thought would be helpless and possibly murdered early on actually winds up one of the central heroes. It has the feel of a Ridley Scott or John Hughes movie, but with all the luxuries of modern technology; nothing back then looked quite this good. More than that, it’s gets the important things right – great characters, intriguing plot, and just enough mystery to make you want to blow through eight episodes in an afternoon. It works even if you don’t understand a single reference.
I mention Stranger Things because this is the sort of thing Datarock seem to be aiming for. Literally, in a sense; the promo stills and videos hint at a darker, haunted atmosphere that appears to take some direct cues from the show. But they’ve been doing this from the start. Their music is “set” in 1983 and is chock full of references to their favorite New Wave groups, but you don’t really need to process any of that to enjoy it. Despite the new look, this is mostly the same old Datarock, not even bothering to address the elephant in the room: it’s been nine years since their last studio album proper, and six years since the band really felt “active” in a sense. Of course, they did perform and record an entire musical recently, but even that consisted mostly of music written several years prior, and featured a not-so-subtle message that suggested the group was hanging it up for a while.
In some sense, Datarock were doomed from the start; their first record was a hit precisely for how goofy and DIY it was, which made their tight and reference-heavy 2nd album come off like it was trying too hard. I guess that’s sort of the Catch-22 of dance-punk. James Murphy can wake up, spill a cup of coffee all over himself, yell “the 90s kids are wearing their new zackets!!!” and sell 100,000 records. But we all know how hard he works. Face the Brutality splits the difference here, bringing back some elements from their debut but retaining the sophistication and songcraft that marked their later work. So they will do a tune called “BMX” with Casios and Linndrums, but they will not yell about how it is “better than sex”. On “Ruffle Shuffle” Fredrik sings like he’s just getting out of bed; if this were on Red he’d be yelping the entire way. Which is not to say they don’t amp the energy up; the two closing tracks are the fastest and thrashiest they’ve ever done, with “Outta Here” almost coming off like some great long-lost Buzzcocks single. But there’s more discipline here; nothing feels as tightly wound as it did in the past.
As such, this is less Devo and more New Order; that bass line on “Invitation to Love” is pure Peter Hook, but New Order haven’t written a song this good in *checks calendar* 25 years, so it’s fair game. They even got Ket-ill to play some sax on it, a rare occurrence on a Datarock LP. The single “Laugh in the Face of Darkness” is kind of like that too, the band settling into a chilled groove while Fredrik seemingly reads out of Bartlett’s Book of Quotations. I’d miss the rave-ups if the tunes weren’t so great. “Feathers and Wax” is already on my shortlist for Song of the Year; it’s shockingly resonant (for Datarock, that is) and features the sort of shuffling rhythm that makes you wish the tune were three times longer. “Sense of Reason” is pure fun and features some real tasty guitar – this is what late-period Talking Heads should have sounded like. “Everything” sums up their entire career in about 3 minutes. “Beautiful Monster” injects a welcome bit of emotional heaviness into the mix. Amusingly, the lead single “Ruffle Shuffle” is probably one of the weakest tracks on the album, but even that one’s catchy enough to stick in your head for weeks. Song for song, this has got to be the most consistent record they’ve ever put out.
All that said, one of the record’s biggest strengths is in its production and engineering. I know that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, but I think it’s very important to a synthpop record like this one. Often drum machines and synthesizers that sound awesome in the studio don’t translate well to the record, but they’ve really nailed it here. Again, this could be the Stranger Things influence; 80’s referencing is cool and all, but it doesn’t really hit home unless you do it cleanly – otherwise it just sounds like you’re using dated equipment. It’s not about having an encyclopedic knowledge of the era, it’s about knowing what makes those songs tick. Datarock do this better than anyone in the business; lets hope they stick around a while.