Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

8/10

In 2007, two friends and I embarked on a vigil. A three hour long journey that saw us brush constantly with authority, involved quite a lot of full frontal nudity, more cocaine than I'd ever seen in the flesh before (about one baggie, I was only 18, and i did not consume it!), cash, bad music, older women and a mysterious lead guitarist who managed to complete almost an entire song before realising his lead wasn't even plugged in (Cut Copy, but that's for another day). It ended with a mind expanding experience. The Daft Punk Pyramid. What followed was 90 minutes of the most intense dancing I'd ever partaken in, and that includes my 6 years of Tap and Jazz (I wasn't a popular child). Losing yourself in the music was an experience I'd never had the good fortune to participate in, despite witnessing it on multiple occasions. And even though it was pouring rain and I had 8 dissolvable stitches in my left knee from a work accident the previous day, I was on the freaking barrier for a Daft Punk show, and my mind was blown.

That's what Daft Punk became to so many people during the 90s, fans and artists alike. True revolutionaries, true creators, are so rare on the ground that each of them stands out vividly against whatever backdrop they're standing in front of. The hype and the press around Random Access Memories is a true testament to a group that, let's face it, hasn't set the world alight since 2001's Discovery. Human After All was the most ironic title ever placed on a record. Rather than sounding organic and relaxed it was a stiff, hard-edged electronic affair that offered little of the unbridled glee and sunshine of their previous two records. Tron: Legacy was an excellent soundtrack, but suffered from the confining nature of the medium. With little room to stretch their legs the duo resigned to short jabs of ideas that, if elaborated on could have flowered in to an epic, but were instead retained in a tight bubble.

Their true influence lies within their first two records and their world-beating live performances. The Daft Punk Pyramid is legendary, and it spawned the brilliant Alive in 2007, a concert recording from Paris that took listeners on a sonic mix up of their most famous material. Whilst claims were levelled at them about the nature of their 'performance', namely that they pressed play and bopped around for 90 minutes, the result is undeniable. Critical darlings, they were able to finally blast away any remaining apathy surrounding dance music and live performance. People just shut up and focused on having the time of their lives.

Random Access Memories suffers at the hands of the masses, yet ultimately thrives beyond them. Understanding an artists head-space going in to a project like this is a difficult task, especially when the artists present as two mushroom men who have descended from an unfathomable galaxy. Random Access Memories is not constructed in the manner in which we are now accustomed to digesting our dance music. Rather, it scouts around the musical decades, searching for forgotten sounds and dusty jazz dive bars to breath life in to. Give Life Back To Music is such a sharply focused title it took me fifteen listens to truly appreciate its gravity. This project is all about the music. There are a plethora of other factors desperately seeking the attention of our space-suited heroes, but their genius lies within their disguise. Impervious to white noise, inane chatter, they are free to create.

The opening track gives the most potent overview of RAM possible. A rising, overly epic introduction cascades away in to a lovely 70s funk groove, laced with their archetypal disco guitars and softly spoken vocoder elaborations. The groove sounds rescued, as if they've drawn it from the record player spinning Marvin Gaye in a 1975 Brooklyn apartment and sprinkled a restrained amount of trademark flair. It doesn't provide a focus or a clear path, which is its only criticism, one that's dynamically introduced with the second song, Game Of Love. A perplexing choice, yet a lovely song, this time sucking in the soul of the 90s 'come-down' ambient movement and spattering their funk guitars around the periphery to add movement. A song that maybe would've appeared more apt on Human After All, the vocoder is used expertly to draw each syllable out, contributing to the message of pain and even a tortured quality, 'When you decided to walk away / When I wanted you to stay'. Wonderful song, poorly placed.

The crux of the project was always going to be the hype. Less prolific artists who are identified as revolutionaries, Boards of Canada, Justin Timberlake, My Bloody Valentine, enjoy sustained periods of professional (note: professional) relaxation. This is then followed by such sharply focused, intense pressure whenever they embark on a new project. Whilst the suits may protect them somewhat, there is not a doubt that Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were feeling the scrutiny. Human After All proved their resilience and commitment to their own artistic visions. Random Access Memories celebrates it. Take Within, the fourth track. Coming after the outstanding Giorgio By Moroder, the temptation must be to feed the beasts what they crave. Stratospheric, danceable guitars, EDM overload, something those dilated pupils can put to good use. Instead, we're blind-sided with a morose, down-tempo pleading, a man trapped behind confusion crying out for understanding and identity. Human after all..

Adding to that organic touch is the sheer weight of collaborators they've laced RAM with. Julian Casablancas, Pharrell, Paul Williams, Todd Edwards, Panda Bear, Nile Rodgers, the list is reminiscient of a DJ Khaled mixtape, it's jam packed with talent. Julian Casablancas is outstanding on Instant Crush, his soft falsetto melds perfectly with the smooth synth riff, and even begins double timing at one point, propelling the mood even further skyward. It is Touch, and Paul Williams however, that provides the hidden gem of the album. Greeted by foreboding industrial noise, his dolcid tones slide in effortlessly and relax like a shot of valium to the heart. Little prepares you, though, for the way he grabs this song like an intercept pass and drags the entire ensemble along behind him. His demands, 'I need something more' are bursting with aggression and defiance. What happens at 3:30 is outstanding. An image of one of our spacemen, sitting in a 1950s Western bashing away at a saloon piano with a 1930s Big Band behind him extolling the qualities of brass, which is then washed away in a 'spinning through space' moment as the vocoders answer Williams' earlier pleas, 'Hold on'. The whole thing then has a 'Day In The Life' breakdown moment before resting in to a heavenly synth arrangement, soothing the ears. Stunning track.

This diversity, this willingness to explore is also an exercise in restraint, willpower. If Daft Punk had created an album of One More Time's and Around The World's they'd be heralded as the greatest dance artists of the modern era. Touch is proof they are operating on a higher plane than that. Motherboard is the perfect example, an odd fluttery song mimmicking something like The Album Leaf or even Four Tet, at 3:10 it descends in to Autechre levels of weird, you're plunged in to this jungle beat that has you running for your life, diving under water to escape the industrial noise, before breaching to a beautiful deserted beach. Electrical dexterity I call it, and it is the centrepiece of a revolutionary dance act. To follow that, then, with Fragments of Time is again improvising gone right. Lounge music is spunked up by Todd Edwards and well placed slide guitars, lending a Southern American quality. In genus this is the most similar to the opening track, a sort of a summing up of what this record is about. The back end is a delightful, noisy romp that demands dancing, almost in defiance of the first half. Such an odd juxtaposition and yet the variety only enhances.

Then there is the lead single. Get Lucky, the song that took us all by complete surprise and by absolute gusto. A collaboration match made in heaven, a pop song that will undoubtedly grace the top ten lists of most critics at years end. It was a revelation when released, fans devoured it like Oprah at a buffet. My dad loves it. My mum loves it. My Grandma doesn't even mind it. It went Number 1 just about everywhere, and yet it is a song graced with simplicity and every hallmark of a Daft Punk album track. The disco guitar locus, the unobtrusive bassline that pulls like an ocean current, the uncomplicated percussion book-ending each punch of guitar noise. Pharrell doesn't even appear to exert any forced influence, his laid-back demeanour manages to exude personality. The vocoders don't even appear to serve any higher purpose, they just elaborate, consolidate on an already insanely catchy riff. Yet it took 18 months to craft this pop gem. The world of pop music is no longer inhabited solely by drunken, drugged out rock stars strumming 5 minute number 1's. This is intelligent dance music, executed expertly.

Doin' it Right, with Panda Bear. Oddly placed, again, because the tension present here is more suited to an earlier introduction. The vocoders mesh with the clicking to paint the picture of a strained, awkward situation. The best way to describe it is it feels like the start of a 21st birthday party, that first 45 minutes where people from vastly different social groups are thrown in to a room together, music playing, and expected to cast off inhibitions and interact. Daft Punk encourage it, and Panda Bear's Lennox delivers a jolted, stuttering performance that only enhances the awkward nature. The song doesn't have a definitive conclusion, rather it drifts in to nothingness and becomes Contact. Employing a Lemon Jelly tactic of mundane space transmissions laid over the top of a heavy synth riff, the song explodes, resembling Kavinsky's Nightcall, in to a permeable wall of electronic noise before going full EDM and FINALLY giving the molly generation their fix of wide eyed hysteria. You'll be throwing joints out of their sockets dancing to this, it's a true dance hero, something The Chemical Brothers would be envious of. A wonderful conclusion that reads like a statement: we're still the dance kings.

Earlier, I wrote about understanding the headspace of our two masked heroes. In the brilliant cover story by Pitchfork, they explained the true gravity of the project that became Random Access Memories, and revealed more than a little about their impression of their own legacy and obligations. Bangalter said “We like the idea of trying to be pioneers, but the problem with that is when you're too much ahead, the connection doesn't really happen at the time." They began work on this record in 2008. 5 years ago. Most artists release 2 or 3 records in that time, but if you have the patience and time to truly dissect the shockingly vast array of ideas and sounds that have been injected in to Random Access Memories you wonder how they did it so quickly. Whilst humility may be short on the ground in their case, it must be remembered that with confidence comes individual responsibility and pressure. It is entirely possible that there was no-one in this world placing Daft Punk under more pressure to create a masterpiece than themselves. It needed to be dynamically different from anything else out there. Rather than attempt a Justin Timberlake method, lazily pilfering sounds that were popular 35 years ago and passing them off as revolutionary and fresh, Daft Punk dug in to their memory box and extracted only what they needed, before splattering their own genius all over it. This was a meticulous job. Apparently they had orchestral arrangements for every single song on the record, the strings only appeared on four tracks.

8/10 Did their hard work pay off? Have they created a masterpiece? Yes and no. Viewed amongst its contemporaries, viewed from a singularly critical standpoint, and when dissected as I have done, this is a masterpiece. Autechre's Exai is the true benchmark in 2013 for sheer scope and number of new and exciting electronic ideas, but Random Access Memories incorporates that element and takes it further, crafting such a diverse range of sounds and influences in to a wonderfully listenable pop record. However, the complexity is rarely celebrated by the masses, and most will interact with this album on a more spontaneous level. That is why Twitter blew up with 'elevator music' tags. That's entirely understandable, and it must be remembered this is a pop record, and much scope must be invested in whether it succeeds as such. It does, but it is no pop masterpiece. For that reason, it recieves an 8/10, rather than anything higher. Diversity, whilst a strength to some, is a hinderance to others, and we must view the record within its environment.
Best Tracks: Get Lucky, Touch, Giorgio by Moroder, Contact, Instant Crush

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