Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories


It would be foolish to describe the scale of hype and talk of Daft Punk's first studio album in over eight years, as anything but cosmic. So too it would be idiotic to pretend it hasn't been desperately trying to get into our heads at every waking corner of the web. But then again, the French duo have always been known, and cleverly suited, to treating their sound as one of both astronomical significance and interpersonal relation. Where Discovery had once confused some - and disgusted several others - upon its release, the inevitability of the album's innocence and means for bonding the humane and artificial of expression was one of the finer moments in electronic music of the past decade. Daft Punk have thus become as much gifted, as they are cursed, by their 2001 album's universal success - an album built on hi-flying feel-good tracks and deep-sinking emotionally-gripping melodies, that anything afterwards would require in itself the same manner of engagement. While it would be unfair to base, on principle, Random Access Memories as simply a reinstating of that previous context as if some Discovery MK II, it would likewise be foolish to refute the relevance of this album being built up to be a spectacle at least in a sense of wonderment. On a musical level, if the press coverage, interviews and collaborator list is anything to go by, the 70's disco-funk-soul flavors abbreviating certainly allude to the familiar ideas Thomas Bangalter & Guy-Manuel de Homen-Christo share in taking from the past, to define the future. But more importantly, on a personal level - and thus, what may be being suggested in the album's title and perhaps too at the imagery - it's an indication towards Daft Punk's status quo as characters as much musicians: caught fluxing between the paradigm of humanity and machinery. Of the organic and the synthesized.

Importantly however, this is not a concept record, and neither is it one that wants to be made out as such. As the opening track Give Life Back To Music professes - as much in the title as in the musical content - Daft's direction is indeed of a past professing to create the future. The textural sweep of funk guitars and drum hits pave the way for a song patently in touch with its rhythmic roots and the idea of groove as a right of way. In Daft's own words, their inability to hold attraction to a piece past the eighth to sixteenth bar is definitely something that doesn't see their music - even here at the start - differentiate into anything as colourful or as electrically charged as their former offerings. What it does instead is combine their soothing vocoder-charged grooves and rhythmic drum beats to suggest importance lies in the setting and of the vibe, rather than the dictation of sounds. The Game Of Love likewise cements the album's underlying identity as one of simple unveiling, but here takes it two/three gears down. The Something About Us vibes peeling through here: the minimally-lyrical vocoders, the swirling guitar plucks, the arrhythmic bobbing of synthesizer notes...it's increasingly a question concerning the humanity of emotion and indeed an artificial means of sustainability, rather than outright change. While the vibe definitely pronounces itself clearly, I do admittedly feel there's more focus put on the vocals and the blissful spaciousness of the track as opposed to crafting a track comprised of instrumentation that actually adapts to the scenery rather than just - as the drums feel - standing there, waiting.

By contrast, as we roll into the nine-minute Georgio By Moroder - beginning with an introductory story by Mr Moroder of electronic music's revelation as a sound of the future - the focus changes from the consistency of the emotions to the consistency of the rhythm. The track shifts from warming funk-and-soul, to the mind-widening cosmic exploring of analog disco. Recoiling out with its pulsating synthesizers and 4/4 drums, the song eventually uncurls and glides into funk-laiden guitars and shining strings whereby it expels a brunt downpour of physical drums and an energy clearly fueled by some shining revelation of discovery and/or new ideas. But the Punk's borrowing from the funk doesn't degrade utterly to some minimally-shifting one-layer-less variance on their robotic mutterings and instrumental minimalism - or be it one so persistently attempting to make most of such deliberate simplicity. Instant Crush is the first, and by far most effective, combining of flickered reference and present emotion. Julian Casablancas' vocals, despite their synthesized tone  (and at times melding into the warming cocooning of guitars to the point their texture is less of a fluid attraction, and more ending up treacle-like in their ambiguity), the undying passion and deeply hitting dexterity of the lyrics certainly do the track justice in highlighting the mood and vibes of being in love, being afraid to lose it...and feeling as if one has. It's the choral sweeps that, as if desperately sacrificial, that mark this song in its almighty hard-hitting genius; guitars driving one level higher as Cassablanca's vocals roll as if off an augmented tongue and into the vortex of romanticizing grooves and intimately-reaching percussion.

This leads me onto where the great strength of this album not only lies, but excels in both its management of sound and measure of intensity through our interactivity as human beings. Daft Punk, despite their abundant fixation on groove and cautiously steady drum rhythms here, skillfully underlay a sort of hidden arc of narration both underneath and amid the beats and repetition of their tracks. Where at times, the themes and means to detail are of simple let-loose ecstasy - Pharrell's [better] offering on the funk-drenched, body-to-body, dance-floor monolith Lose Yourself To Dance, while perfectly capturing the let-loose enticement it greatly envisages, does show Daft Punk's slight inability in preventing their energy and emotion bleeding too far in length terms - in others they're one of theatrical, yet gorgeously-revealing intensity. Touch comes off, in a good way I iterate, as if taken straight from a number on a Disney film. The way Paul Williams - both in voice and  lyrics - comes off, perhaps plays, the part of the supposed titular character...in this case, a robot caught in speculation over his existence and the baffling notion of whether or not he's in fact human...it's nothing short of captivating. And the music, despite its hop-skip jumping about - and at times bordering on the cheesy orchestral build-up - still manages to assertion to the electronic foundation of which both the sounds (and indeed the supposed character of the piece) originate from. But the music's finest moment, and its crucial turning point as both a progressive piece as much as it is a narrative built on a story, is the rising tension of strings greeted by clouding choir harmonies (human and robotic alike); thus finally lavishing into a joyous upturn of percussion and classicist harmonies denoting an overwhelming positivity for both the narrative as well as the listener. It's the perfect set-up given how the music deliberately - and with great force - pull the cord and we're left with the concluding realization the character of the song comes to: 'Sweet touch/You've almost convinced me I'm real/I need something more'...which, having reeled from the shock, is nothing short of defeating as it is impacting on us as beings.

Of course, to reiterate, not all the elemental themes or possible themes surrounding humanity, robotics, robots becoming humans (or not in the former case) are as clear-cut. But they don't intend to be, and the benefit here is that there's little suggestion the very idea of a concept is present. There's enough to hint at, but not enough to immediately deface a track as part of some wider narrative. So while it's perfectly fine for listeners to approach tracks such as Beyond (amid its mid-tempo robotic intimacy) or Motherboard - its title in itself a paradox to the organic shifts between colourful downtempo and tense electronic mutterings it so graciously presents - to be one of deeper illustrative purpose, it's equally as viable for people to approach Get Lucky with a notion to simply enjoy the track's upbeat funk-fueled passage of guitars and Pharrell Williams' coaxing of personal unity. Even with the invitation to take from these tracks from both a humane context as much from an analytical one - thus adding an intriguing spin to an album not exactly concrete or objectively sequential in both its set-pieces or optional narrative themes - there's no denying this is a very personal record to Bangalter and Homen-Christo. It's not entirely indulgent, but there's concern most pressingly, that the duo are driven on this 70's revolution of groove and rhythm to the point their eye is constantly running the risk of losing posture and maintaining plentiful reasons to keep a listener's attention.

Todd Edwards, the same voice who helped Face To Face express itself as this fulfilling sense of achievement, takes a more self-reflective yet fondly discoverable direction on the West Coast summer vibe of Fragments of Time. The 70's Malibu freshness the music abstains certainly comes through clearly with immediate shine - sinewave guitar lead-offs and plucked strings giving Edwards' open-top honesty one of both optimism, yet unrequited enjoyment. And the choral twiddling of keys and liquid synths definitely add a textural boost to the track's breezy-aired summer-sun vibe. Noah Lennox (or Panda Bear as we know him best), by contrast, is convincing in his contextual layering but does run off at parts, as if his voice isn't entirely comfortable with the monotonous slow-nod vibes of follower Doin' It Right. The AnCo member definitely lends his proto-psychadelic colour well to a track that runs dangerously close to running its vocoder-driven repetition - a la Robot Rock - into the ground. But the song does enough to make use of the track's humble percussion beats, bobbling synths and Panda Bear's wavering presence in the left-over (and there's plenty of it) space. But without question - as we've learned from past experiences many a time - Daft Punk cleverly remind us as to the power, and the enormity, of the duo's focus on repetition as a means to drive a sound and develop it. Contact is an incredible ending for this very reason. Beginning with NASA astronaut Eugene Cernan [last man on the moon] and his spectacle of an unidentifiable object, the music jettisons upward onto the great infinite plane of space. Drums colliding as much as they energize, the twirling dashboard-blinking of synthesizers send us from simple exosphere escapism to unparalleled star-flung mystery. And as the track eventually drowns in its own speed - a crescendo of drone increasingly being twisted into higher and higher intensities like fuel engines reaching critical - like a scene from 2001, the view lessens in understanding, as all measure of speed, distance and existence is replaced by the expanse of stars, dust, planetoids and a mystery that is without response and refusal. If there is a response to be given, it's only when the track comes to a shattering halt; electronics lose all straight-paved consistency and begin breaking apart until the track completely vaporizes into a bleak and darkening and silence.

Of all the albums I've reviews this is by far the one that has taken the most thought and the most diligent thinking-over. Fueled by all the hype, the talk, the objectives and the potential that I;m inclined to see equaling the actual music content, what I find is that Daft Punk's forth studio album is unquestionably one that merits in its exchange of past and future analogies, but doesn't persist on pushing it to near incomprehensible heights. This then, might be the reason why Random Access Memories can not be considered an excellent or flawless album that many had hoped (or perhaps expected) this record to be. The reality is, it's not. What Daft Punk bring though, is a lavish rediscovering of a past field that doesn't necessarily dictate its sequence or motion from start to finish, but instead works it to intriguing lengths within their own futuristic robotized ideals in vocals and looping electronic beats. The result is one that, admittedly, celebrates Daft's skills at beat-like patterns and loops, as much as it exploits such heavy reliance and the  act of restraining one's methods to this technique. For an album that is intentionally more organic than synthesized (and strives to be ambitious because of it), it's as much Daft Punk's most striking record as it is the biggest gamble in regards to keeping people interested in what follows. But above the musical aesthetics and the narrow-minded flow the duo might partake in, Random Access Memories remains an album with varying degrees of interactivity and it's this splitting of the rules of engagement that's anything but narrow. As a result, the potential here is even greater. Regardless of how you treat the narrative orientation - whether it's a human simply being human in one case, a robot trying to be human in another, or in the French duo's case, reminding one's self you're still human regardless of your public identity - where it's plausible to denounce this for providing lesser opportunity for expansion in content, there's no denying Daft Punk have made an album that is both personally accomplishing and publicly enjoying. We are, as they put it, human after all.
~Jordan

7.7

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