Justice’s last album, 2011’s Audio Video Disco tried to reinvigorate the by-then already tired “blog-house” aesthetic by doubling down on the prog-rock and metal influences the duo regularly showed off in their DJ sets and liveshows, but it was in practice a half-measure. It was afraid to get truly weird, electing instead to try pop songs with vocalists that seemed ill-suited to their loud-and-louder demeanour. One of these guest vocalists, Morgan Phalen, returns for two songs on their new album Woman, but thankfully the atmosphere has morphed to accommodate him and the three other guest vocalists who all sound remarkably similar enough that the album originally scans as a full-on collaboration with an in-house singer.
The prog influences remain a key part of Justice’s repertoire, but now it has influenced structure as well as sound. These are the longest songs Justice have produced to date, and they’ve equipped themselves with a newfound patience, ready to create something a listener can luxuriate in rather than pump their fists to. Seemingly taking cues once again from another certain French duo, Justice have been revisiting their favourite disco and soul records and have decided to put their own spin on giving life back to music. The ear-shredding distortion of the past has been removed in favour of high-budget gloss: strings, mid-range drum programming, bass that bounces instead of going postal.
At its best, Woman shows Justice at their most invigorated since the days of their debut. It is a different, more mature drive for sure – it’s hard to imagine any documentary arising from their upcoming tour being as can’t-turn-away insane as 2008’s A Cross The Universe – but also one pretty much consistent with the Justice we’ve always known, for better or worse. ‘Safe and Sound’ is reminiscent of Larry Levan’s legendary disco edits, ‘Love S.O.S.’ is a lyrically spare piece that mercifully uses the eventual explosion of major-key ascension in a manner as far away from the standard idea of the “drop” as possible.
That said, the album runs the risk of losing listeners at that point. Woman is the rare album that offers increasing returns as it goes on, which means that the tracks immediately following ‘Safe and Sound’ may ring alarm bells for those hoping Justice wouldn’t follow the kind of impulses that dragged down their previous album. ‘Pleasure’ and ‘Fire’ are inoffensive and middle of the road as far as this kind of stuff goes, but putting the pair of songs that most resemble Jamiroquai in the first half of the record is a big risk. The record also does not do itself any favours by recruiting four different singers to perform in ways that’ll make most listeners assume it’s the work of one person. If it was Justice’s intention to fit their new songwriting methods to a plurality of styles, it hasn’t quite reached the peak yet.
But once the record finds its footing in the pleasant blend of Zoot Woman’s Johnny Blake and the underutilised choir on ‘Stop’, Justice remind us of why they stood out from the crowd of show-offy new-rave claptrap a decade ago. ‘Randy’ is the kind of ambitious-yet-populist sound that the band should have pursued moreso on Audio Video Disco, and the instrumental pieces, while not quite as successful, show a refreshing willingess to try something different. ‘Close Call’ finishes the record as the closest thing to new-age ambient the band have written yet, something close to unthinkable when they were closing sets by remixing ‘Master of Puppets’ to make it even more brutal.
Woman is no masterpiece – it won’t be on any best-of lists, and it may take a while to click with listeners who are fully turned off by being reminded of the days of The Hype Machine clogging up the electronic music landscape with Justice-inspired nonsense like The Bloody Beetroots and MSTRKRFT (the latter of whom, as it happens, also released a third album this year that landed with a thud by acting as though Hadouken fans never grew up). But such reductive reasoning does a disservice to Justice – always a more knowledgeable and clever group than they sometimes like to let on – returning to their groove. I hope it’s momentum that will continue.