We congregated at the mouth of the amphitheater, a few thousand in number. The Miami air was a cool 83-degrees and our arms were bare. Our voices were hoarse from a week spent screaming in smoke-filled rooms; our brains jumbled by lack of sleep; our bodies propped up by some unholy mixture of caffeine, amphetamines, and vodka-Red Bulls.
Sunday night is always the hardest of Miami Music Week, and the Live Stage is sometimes the least appreciated at Ultra Music Festival, but we were a faithful flock. We’d traveled far and wide across the world to receive the good word. We might not have realized the gravity of what we’d find when we left our homes and hotels that day, but tonight, at this moment, we’d all be taken to Church.
The Church is Justice‘s new live tour, a grand statement of subtlety and skill wrapped in a blinding, shape-shifting light show. It’s more than an experience. It’s a game changer, and it’s been kept under tight wraps not often seen in our post-Internet age. While deadmau5 posts video after video to YouTube showcasing every angle and aspect of his Cube 2.1, Justice didn’t even prep me with a press release before I met them at the festival for a pre-show chat.
“Everything has changed between the last time we played live and now, even in terms of the tools you can use to make music,” Justice’s Xavier de Rosney tells me on the Ultra press boat. “Every time we go on a new tour, the first work we have to do is to figure out a way of performing music on stage, making it interesting for the people and for us as well. It took us maybe five or six months just to rehearse and prepare the music, and also to find new ways of getting more than what you can actually get from the softwares and everything that people use on stage.”
The Church performance at Ultra Sunday was only the band’s third and its first in the United States, but the show is already a well-oiled machine. De Rosnay and his curly-haired partner Gaspard Augé work a studio’s worth of modular synths, keyboards, and mixers arranged in a semi-circle around them between two giant monitors. The mass of wires, knobs, and keys sit atop four black road cases. The whole scene is flanked by the familiar walls of Marshall amps, but those are more than meets the eye. The guys turn forward and backward with calm precision as if the knock of their knees and the shift in their stances are choreographed dance moves.
They’ve flipped the usual DJ and electronic show on its head, literally rotating the “booth” 90 degrees to give you a profile view. They’re stone faced and focused, like a version of Kraftwerk raised on ’70s yacht rock and heavy metal. Their precision is uncanny. You wonder how they’re human. Their white skinny jeans stomping the beat and their heads nodding in time are their power pose. When you’re actually making the music you play, your hands are too busy to wave in the air.
“It’s really the beginning of the tour,” De Rosney says. “We have to rehearse every time we can rehearse. Usually we do it by night, just after everything is set up. We spend like two, three, four, five hours on the set just playing and rehearsing and everything. We do night shifts and day shifts. It’s a bit physical, but it’s cool.”
The concept of “The Church” can be traced to Justice’s origins. The Cross was the duo’s first icon, it’s debut album simply titled “†.” “It goes back to 2003 when we started mixing beats together,” Augé is quoted in the Dallas Observer in 2008. “We had the idea to try to turn a club into a church because it’s almost like…the same energy. And we also think they both kind of unite people and move them in the same direction.”
The communal love for Justice was palpable in the Ultra audience. One man showed off his forearm Cross tattoo, and I myself beamed proudly over a custom “Stress”-inspired hoodie jacket. The kid next to me squealed over the music that he’d camped all day for his spot in the crowd. “I’ve waited 10 years for this moment” he screamed as he jumped up and down, arms in the air.
The sermon begins with a hymnal take on Woman opener “Safe and Sound” and builds into the familiar disco groove. The guys hunch over like mad scientists in a musical laboratory as they begin mixing old hits with new, working the childlike voice of “D.A.N.C.E.” in and out of the recent single.
The set is a series of mash ups and reinterpretations of Justice’s catalogue. It draws connections between the three albums, merging “Phantom Pt. 1” with “Pleasure,” “Alakazam!” into “Fire,” re-contextualizing and redefining the body of work into one seamless story while simultaneously crafting a new sound that can’t be caught upon a revisit to any of the albums separately. Even the songs that stand alone are reinvigorated by new arrangements and sampling sequences. It’s as if Justice had to put out these three albums so they could put them together into one massive final form of screaming electronics, raw guitar, disco hand claps, and cinematic sentimentalism.
“It’s always been like that,” Augé says, “always in between those very over the top romantic stuff and those bombshell sounds.”
“We only made three albums, but after the second album and after (Woman), we’re thinking now maybe it sounds a bit the same too much as what we did before,” De Rosnay continues. “We’re really surprised by how people feel it’s very different … When we put the music together and when we start rehearsing, we say ‘okay, we’re going to play this song and this one, whatever.’ Everything fits very naturally one into the other.”
The lights tell the other half of the story. Large floating panels of old-fashioned, flooding stage lights move swiftly into different formations, taking new positions before you even realize what’s happened. The Marshall amps reveal themselves to be blinding LEDs. The platform under their feet fills with stars. Never do they blast more than one color at a time, just as the accompanying sounds are strong in their simplicity.
The Church is all about minimalism taken to it maximal form. They hardly move, but when De Rosnay lit a cigarette or Augé paused the music and waved one hand to egg cheers for a daring 30 seconds, the response was intense. Justice does more to whip-up excitement with inaction than with any grand-stand posturing or shouts of “1-2-3-let’s go,” an exhausted phrase they crack jokes about back on the boat.
“We walked five minutes through the festival, and all we heard was ‘1-2-3 let’s go,’” De Rosnay smiles. “It’s crazy, and it’s so typical of the era, but this is what makes it at the same time.”
Nothing about Justice is typical of the Ultra crowd. They’re more whiskey and cigarettes than molly, more rock’n’roll than special guest rap star. This marks the duo’s third Ultra appearance, first in 2008, again in 2012, and each time, they worked the Main Stage with a distinctly dark disco attitude.
“We always feel a little bit like the outsider in Ultra, which is great, and that’s the reason we play Ultra on every tour,” De Rosnay says.”It’s a good way for us to confront ourselves to a totally different crowd. Most of the people who come to enjoy the Ultra experience don’t feel our music is really part of this. It’s different but so far in a good way. It’s one of the most challenging festivals for us, and that’s always been the case.”
Halfway through the set, the duo descends into the eery end of a revamped version of “Stress.” Red lights glow heavy on the somber scene, while behind the stage, fireworks explode over DJ Snake‘s Main Stage performance. Over there, the other Frenchman jumps on top of his decks and dances next to Future. It’s the epitome of EDM excess, while over here, we’re holding EDM’s funeral.
All Miami Music Week, the conversation has been that of finding dance music’s place in a decidedly post-EDM future. It seems there are two obvious paths for modern dance producers; either you take the commercial songwriting success of the Chainsmokers as your guide to riches, or you dive headfirst into the dark, tech-house, techno, all-night, so-called “underground.” These paths were both celebrated at Ultra and throughout Miami’s extended club land all weekend, but Justice, once again, stand as outsiders to both camps, somewhere in the middle and nowhere at all.
It’s that outsider quality that made Justice’s set the most unforgettable. While the duo mirrors its influences beautifully, it delivers something entirely fresh and new, something fans feel is familiar but have never quite heard before. The Church is a stunning triumph of live electronic performance that could easily set a new generation of would-be producers rushing to pick up analog skills. It left me feeling like I’d witnessed a true moment of artistry and change. It brought me back to another performance from my past at a short-lived music festival called Bang!, held just down the street at Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami nearly 11 years ago in 2006, and tweets shared on the Ultra live stream proved I wasn’t the only one.
As I finished my chat with Justice on the press boat, I made one last rhetorical question. “Oh hey, when are Daft Punk going on tour? I know you guys know.”
They laughed and smiled, then posed for a picture with a fan. As I stood watching The Church a few hours later, completely mesmerized by a spectacle equal parts light show and unmatchable musical talent, surrounded by thousands of people as captivated as I was, I realized the robots probably won’t tour in 2017, and the honest truth is, they don’t have to.