Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

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Random Access Memories might be a messy affair, but it’s not surprising Daft Punk ended up making an album like this. They were the prime architects of electronic music in the 90’s and early 00’s, spawning a new wave of sampled-based dance music to creep out of the shadows and on to the charts. But almost 20 years after the release of the ground-breaking Homework, having every kid with a computer trying to emulate the sample-techniques that they once pioneered, there’ wasn’t more they could do. If nothing g else, 2005’s sluggish Human After All already proved this. So naturally, they looked back to some of their heroes and pioneers of  70’s dance music. The result works like a Daft Punk record imitating a Daft Punk record by the use of live instruments instead of samples, or more accurately; an album of collaborations with the very artists they normally would consider sampling.

In addition to the much talked about session with Giorgio Moroder, the hall-of-fame roaster of collaborators includes Chic’s Nile Rodgers, The Strokes’ Julian Cablancas, Chilly Gonzales, Todd Edwards, Paul Williams, Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox and Pharrell Williams. But regardless of the V.I.P guest list, it’s actually pretty much a typical Daft Punk record in the sense that it feels, breathes every aspect of the duo’s aesthetics that we learned to know and love over the past twenty years. What Daft Punk manages to do is almost completely incorporate every aspect of the collaborators contribution into their own aesthetics. And any live musician aside, the duo’s vocoder voices are there, more present than ever, making us once again feel welcome in their sonically warm robotic universe.

The album’s been a long time in the making. The duo started to work on it in 2008, at first on their own, but after feeling limited by their own abilities, they brought in more and more musicians to the project. No computers were used, only a couple of synthesizers and vintage vocoders, everything else is recorded to analog tape in a vastly expensive recording studio environment with the use of “real” instruments and live musicians. It’s an ambitious undertaking, working its way through a wide variety of genres; all coated in luxurious production techniques from the disco-era of the 70’s.

Random Access Memories starts with a very clear statement, “Give Life Back to Music” with Nile Rogers laying down his trademark funky-disco guitars. In a sense it’s a very traditional sounding Discovery-era Daft Punk song, except for the organic feel generated by use of live instruments The cocktail-hour lounge-jazz of “The Game Of Love” is the type of bitter-sweet bleeding-robot mood that Daft Punk can master with both hands tied to their backs. Whether it’s “Make Love” or “Something About Us”, they always manage to squeeze out the most beautiful electro-jazz explorations without much effort.

The much talked about Giorgio Moroder collaboration lives up to its hype, but only after we stuck with the Italian disco producer talking about his search for “the sound of the future”. But finally after Moroder ends his monolog with “everybody calls me Giorgio”, there is a brief pause, before suddenly Moroder’s spine-tingling Moog sequencer appears. From there and on, the song slowly builds towards its fully orchestrated climax with a howling guitar solo and a fully-formed string quartet.

“Giorgio by Moroder” is followed by Chilly Gonzales sentimental piano play on the robotic-ballad of “Within”, before a revitalized Julian Casablanca lends his voice to some extensive Vocoder treatment on “Instant Crush”. “Lose Yourself To Dance”, the first out of two Pharrell Williams collaborations, does more than enough to live up to its name. It’s the funkiest, 70’s disco groove you’ll likely to have heard on this side of the millennium. But few other tracks are so ready for the flickering lights, and the mood quickly shifts into the wistful epic of “Touch” featuring a 72-years old Paul Williams on vocals (note: you should check out William’s discography, it’s quite an impressive and expansive one). Sonically, it’s the track that stands out the most, a kaleidoscopic journey going from a beautiful ballad with Williams heart-aching vocals to classic Shaft-ish guitar picking, to a huge organic disco stumper before it’s three minutes of epic climax with synthesizers, a string quartet and a whole choral group singing along the lines of “Hold on, Love is the answer”. It’s the blood-pumping core of RAM, a track I never would’ve guessed the duo had it in them. This is the closest Daft Punk will ever get to being The Beatles.

The second of the Pharrell Williams tracks is the Off The Wall-disco stumper of “Get Lucky”. In hindsight it’s a fitting single, pretty much working as the blueprint of the record. It’s also the most successful tracks of the duo’s career, for the first time reaching a number one spot outside of France. In essence, it’s a pretty straightforward track, even more fitting in the context of the record than when being played on radio, but it’s the thirty seconds of the duo’s Vocoder break that makes the track unforgettable.

The second and possibly even stronger half continues with “Beyond”, a sexy revisit to the slow electro-funk of Discovery’s finest moments, and even manages to outshine them. “Motherboard” is the first out of two ambitious instrumentals. It continues the melancholic presence of “Beyond”, with scattered percussions and acoustic guitars, eventually evaporating into a sci-fi score sounding composition. “Fragments of Time” with legendary house Dj Todd Edwards on vocals, is a borderline cheesy 80’s spectacle that could’ve been the lead song of a Chevy Chase comedy, but it also works as a sequel (or perhaps a prequel) to “Digital Love”.

But it’s towards the end that Random Access Memories reach its biggest heights. Nothing on the album can match “Doin’ it Right” simplistic brilliance. Over just a lonesome vocoder and a steady drum beat, Noah Lennox’s (Panda Bear) chant-y yelps creates a mesmerizing contrast. Despite all fascinating collaborations with larger-than-life type of legends, “Doin’ it Right” remains the simplest yet the most hypnotic song on the album. The record ends with long-time collaborator Dj Falcon who steps in to help deliver the punching space-disco finale of “Contact”. If it were to become the last track of the French duo’s career, it’s one heck of a blow-out that summarizes their discography in its six short heart-racing minutes.

In conclusion, Random Access Memories is one of most kaleidoscopically twisted dance record I’ve ever heard – it’s dance music’s equivalent to The Dark Side of The Moon. Interestingly, no matter how different it may be from Homework or even Discography, every aspect of every song breathes Daft Punk. It doesn’t matter who they bring to the table, no one could’ve even come close to making this record except them. I was skeptic, almost to the point that I thought it will be an outright failure, but it’s everything but. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have made an album that is an impressive tribute to the originators of the music they’ve been making for the past 20 years. Homework and Discovery were two exceptional records, not necessarily looking forward at all times, but always playful and startling. Random Access Memories fundamentally works in the same way; an album that once again proves their ability to reinvent themselves, leaving everybody second-guessing their brilliance. RAM may not be as important as their groundbreaking debut, but it’s quite possible the pinnacle of their career.

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