Random Access Memories – Daft Punk (2013) (Pt 1)

I’ve taken to the garden for this one. It seems only right as it was a sweltering summer that saw the likes of ‘get lucky’ storm the shores of festival seasons and music circuits back in 2013. We were made to sweat. We were asked to lose ourselves and give life back to music. The cover-art of that grammy-sweeping single illustrates a tempestuous ‘Apocalypse Now’ sun; a mirage for a mysterious band that play on through the heat-wave like the last rockers on earth. We all took to dancing and though it wasn’t the barraging drum of our final sundowns it certainly spelled the end of a musical era and for me – the beginning of a memorable summer.

Hot off the heels of a new tour and burrowed in from the beat monotony of the movie soundtrack to 2010’s ‘Tron: Legacy’, Daft Punk’s conceptualisation of Random Access Memories was to focus primarily on live instrumentation. This fresh blend of format birthed obscure and yet organic entanglements; from celebrity interviews and busy restaurant ambiences to space station frequencies. The resulting theme that courses through the life-veins of this award-winning vinyl is that it becomes an archive of overlapping sounds. The album feels like a sneak-peak into the inner-workings of a huge cerebral network, an audio log transmitting lost signals from the ear-wave ether and a random series of ideas for which the album boldly gains its name. With a slap of bass-playing and echoes of electric bending, Random Access Memories becomes a sort of time capsule for music where unearthed discussions lost in memory are added to every decade or so by one generation after another. On that note, Giorgio Giovanni (dubbed the ‘father of disco’) said the laying down of foundations in developing popular disco music came from encompassing ‘the sound of the 50’s, the sound of the 60’s, of the 70’s” but to also incorporate “a sound of the future”. Daft Punk’s 4th studio album adds to this conversation so superbly that not only is this discussion morphed into such a song in “Gorgio by Moroder” (almost in boastful awareness), but you feel that if people still connect with this record in another 40 years, music couldn’t and wouldn’t have gone too far wrong along the way.There’s also manystriking parallels between Giorgio’s own catalogue and this 2013 release. His all-electronic disco was practically invented for Donna Summer’s ‘I feel Love’ which is heralded by many to be the ultimate demonstration of ditching inhibitions on a dancefloor and it was this ingenuity that was fundamental in tethering generations through a combination of their musical differences (more on this in part 2). Gorgio’s own full length album ‘From Here to Eternity’ contained the same steadying beats we would all hear mirrored a whole 36 years later in Random Access Memories; with his track ‘Lost Angeles’ a dead ringer for many of Daft Punk’s synthesized riffs.

One of the best examples of these mingling epochs can be found in the second track on the Vinyl ‘The Game of Love’. In just the first few revolutions, we are eased into elongated chords by electric keyboards and a bass bounces in and out of a playful shuffle on a guitar. It’s a familiar formula for foot-tapping but it is not long before the reverberating talk-box technology (the instrument that first made Daft Punk so famous) maddens and modernizes this majesty. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo (2 halves of the Daft Punk whole) do not rely so solely on these sorts of creations that the album slips into a sample disc with just the derisory addition of their name and a few wobbles of manipulated vocals. The live recordings are always ameliorated with technology considerately and the experience is never overridden by tracks moving too quickly ahead or lagging too lazily behind. Instead, there are parcels of sound progression that unravel unnaturally outside of wonted passages in time so in always appearing randomly out of place – everything seems so chaotically deliberate. It is no surprise then that Random Access Memories begins with a grandiose opening in Give Life Back to Music” with a catchy jazz riff to then end spectacularly with “control”, which beams down the final notes from a satellite station circling the earth’s stratosphere. In a way, it’s like watching a Sid Meier montage for one of his ‘civilisation’ computer games, as layers of new-fangled sound are placed one on top of another. Just as the game does, when the music in Random Access turns from acoustic seances to progressive hops and then finally an edgier EDM, it all finishes with a cybernetic mess-hall for synthesized soldiers to celebrate. So by this reckoning, the full scale of a harp in the beginning of ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ could well be a spinning disco ball from the 80’s and the high-hat tickle or wrist-flicking tincture of strings – the dimming light of a 70’s night-club. BUT (true to this techno-rapture), only the beckoning ‘come on’ in the French Duo’s rising electro-pitch could coax us onto an open dance-floor like an android disc jockey from the far-future. It’s flares and ‘fros at the ready – but the year is 3000.

In their previous singles, ‘One More Time’ and ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’, the electrified Peter Frampton-like vocals and definitive voice encryption (achieved by using a vintage vocoder) was used just as unsparingly but this signature component is actually far more subtle in Random Access. Daft Punk have not only stayed true to their original conception but have executed it to perfection. In fact, I feel the quality of sound creation is actually best demonstrated in the one exception where the vocoder isn’t utilised at all – ‘Motherboard’. With kaleidoscopic charm, this strictly instrumental piece throws up something different to focus on with every spin. If you listen closely enough in the first 30 seconds, there is a single drop of water alongside a sprite zig-zag of a recorder and intermittent pluck of an acoustic guitar. These snippets of sound punctuate the funk like a stirring metronome and they blend in and out of synthesizers and other woodwind instruments beautifully. Until just over the 3-minute mark. Here, the carefully built-up elements are then broken down by a single drawn-out war-horn and this brass marks a complete submersion into the darker depths of the track. After a long dramatic pause, we are introduced to whale-song (like an envisaging of Enigma or Air’s ‘Moon Safari’’), until drums and synthesized keys pull us safely to the surface. It’s a harmful murmur that begins the final 4 tracks of the 14 but it’s not the type of uneasy danger I’ve heard in replays of Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ or Portishead’s ‘Dummy’. No, this actually feels like a crusade of understanding. Something sinister in Its strangeness but not at all menacing. We are mere spectators to the spontaneity… like a character from a time-travel movie watching on as built up cities turn back to dust and seas drain to deserts. In the final few seconds there is rainfall followed by a final flushing sound effect, a draining of those same rain droplets we heard at the start as we end the song full circle.

But I am in danger of hopelessly over-simplifying. Having summarised one of the more abstract tracks and expanded very loosely on 4 or 5 amazing (all be it, very different) songs, I’m shamefully watering down the wizardry and somehow blurbing for an album that triumphs over 70 minutes. The yarn and yolk of it is that this is all achieved with some of the greatest sound mixing to have been pressed into plasticity, ringed with dead wax and sold to the masses. The acceding themes themselves strike a perfect middle ground between old and expansive music-making. Where many records have failed, Random Access Memories has not hampered the listening experience with hand-me-down disco banalities or been at all star-struck during production with re-visiting rights. There’s a fresh and fun produce of sounds so buoyant with new beat formations and brisk with instrumental smatterings that while it could so easily be made 30 or 40 years ago, it is actually too firm in its resolve to not take this a step further. It encapsulates the best of the song structures seen in the genre’s most famous hits and re-imagines those times by bringing them to us in 2013. In veracious humility, too many other records go the other way… unjustifiably taking us all back. I mean… surely that’s why music from back then still exists right? and rightfully so. That era of LA and the golden age of funk in those West-Coast havens is (in musical terms) completely unprecedented, but while it is without equal it is not off limits to testing new limits or pushing for new heights. I feel this album will serve as an icon for many for that exact reason. You would’ve thought that a move to modernity is the one natural advantage every generation has when their time rolls around but there are only a select few that have championed contemporary disco music without resorting to stuttering remixes of oldies or music videos of rollerblading hipsters and wildly moustached beatniks. It can helplessly sit on the periphery of parody all too easily but Random Access Memories never once looks backwards or borders on retro; not by replication nor righteousness.

I guess the real question is… why has it taken so long for an album of this calibre to appear? Or at least, why has it this sort of music not been more popular or had stronger representations over the years? We have seen artists single-handedly saturate a genre in the past (purely on the merit of their musical expertise, their daring to take the art-form into unknown territory and the resulting accolades they achieve) and this may be one reason why Random Access Memories is so difficult to measure against others. Nothing in contemporary dance competes on all these stages. But I think the answer is actually that despite many fine additions, this record feels like it has been a long time coming, In its unswerving stature, it is the first record dedicated to telling a forgotten dance story and it becomes a love letter to that passage in time. It has to be said that no other album has been marketed so successfully as a faithful retribution to dance music as well but the expectation of such a claim meant the musical proficiency has had to match it. Daft Punk did magnetise us 7 years ago (and a great many summers since), however the over-whelming success Random Access has enjoyed is largely because it also added to an otherwise stinted legacy for Disco.

With just a handful of exceptions (think Holy Ghost!, Stuart Price, Gotye, Basement Jaxx or Dimitri From Paris), the development of the sub-genre Nu-Disco has become almost unrecognisable from the era it originated from and the weighing expectations prior to Random Access’ release meant that the industry eagerly awaited a true and fitting re-birth of old-dance; something to both withstand the Nu and to represent the now. As traditional disco had held its breath for so many years, we were beyond just a refreshing exhale of the ‘good ‘and the ‘great’ that we’d all already heard in patches. It was a ground-breaking salver of best-selling hits that was needed to breath life back into those Californian Valleys. Of course, this re-animation of disco may be in fear of being squandered if this sensational coup-de-maitre stands alone but perhaps this is also exactly what the genre needed anyway. It would be un-kind to so many artists to say this album is without equal in intent, legitimacy and sound construction but you’d do well to show me a more important and well received record in the descendant archives of Nu-Disco or Synth Pop. In this combination of computerised manipulation and live studio recordings as a re-imagining of popular disco, the dance duo have created something that no album in recent memory has got even close to do doing. Daft Punk have successfully lugged something near dead in funk-house 70’s/80’s music and in true Frankenstein fashion, have lifted it to the skies, struck it with robo-babble and resurrected it under a new banner. This is fittingly a funk album not just for the ages but for our age and not just Kool & the Gang disco for millennial hash-taggers but an Earth, Wind and Fire for the 21st Century. A ‘Boogie Wonderland’ for everyone to get lost in.

For these Zion pastures to grow, the brilliance of Random Access Memories cannot act to detract others but in-fact it should encourage those to move the story of the genre onwards and upwards. It was a renaissance that was clearly needed, thoroughly embraced and it should go on to inspire a whole host of desirous talents.

Part 2 Coming Soon!

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