Review 5 – Daft Punk: Random Access Memories

It was time. Finally time to head off on another sonic adventure of outrageous proportions with my favourite French cyborgs. Of course, I’d been expecting them. Talk of some town called Wee Waa and celebrity collaborations had been much publicised, but I still had no idea what to expect. After all, it’d been so long since our last trip into audio outer space. Would this journey be more like the mediocre at best Human After All? Would it recall the outstanding Discovery? Maybe there’d be hints of the Tron: Legacy soundtrack. Or would it go right back to the gritty roots of Homework?

We set off on our journey with “Give Life Back to Music”. Hitting play instantly teleported me back to the future… or was it forward to the past? It was hard to tell, with a track that’s heavily influenced by the disco hits of the 70s, driven by some Nile Rodgers guitar, but accompanied by those trademark futuristic cyborg vocals. Weird and wonderful stuff, and oh so funky throughout.

And then it’s pared right back. The tempo slows, and we settle down into a melancholy groove with “The Game of Love”. Why are the robots so sad? Not sure, but I still want to dance in this track’s warmth, and its undeniable funkiness.

And then, as the last few notes of the previous track fade away, I find myself listening to a man who sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’ve never heard a man pronounce “synthesiser” better than here. Over the first two minutes of “Giorgio by Moroder”, this man tells me about how he got started in music. Turns out it’s Italian synth godfather Giorgio, and as he reveals his identity, an electro fusion epic really gets underway. It’s an effortless combo of genres from the past and present that creates something utterly incredible, some kind of science-fiction space jam. In minute five, Giorgio chips in again “once you free your mind about a concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want”. Then as if to prove a point, strings swell up, a drum kit starts driving the track into its last three or so minutes, and it’s an all out musical free for all, with keyboard, drum, bass and even record scratch solos, along with a searing electric guitar riff. When it all comes together for the epic finale in the last minute, your mind will have already been blown. This shouldn’t work, but it’s one of the best songs I’ve heard in years.

By this point I’d come to expect the unexpected from these Parisian weirdos. But the beautiful piano intro of “Within” still managed to surprise. It reverts back to the melancholia of track two, showing us through the lyrics that robots can also have trouble finding their own identity, or something along those lines. To be fair, the lyrics on a Daft Punk album shouldn’t be read into too much, rather they should be considered another instrument. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the relentless third track, and exemplifies Daft Punk’s mastery of pacing. They won’t let you get bored. For a 74 minute album to not to feel overlong, you have to seriously know your shit. And Daft Punk clearly have that je ne sais quoi programmed into their cybernetics.

The opening of “Instant Crush” hints that something is amiss, and it won’t be the last time I feel this way on the album. It sounds a lot like The Strokes… but it’s got this layer of electronica over it that makes it something else entirely. Wait, that IS Julian Casablancas… but he’s been cyborgified. It could be argued that he shouldn’t need auto-tune, but if he wasn’t auto-tuned, it wouldn’t be Daft Punk now would it? It’s a playful track, with a wicked electro rock vibe. One of the catchier songs on here.

More surprises… the relentless bass and kick drum-driven beat of “Lose Yourself to Dance” is seriously awesome stuff. Pharrell Williams lends his abilities in front and behind the mic for this one. It struts into your eardrums, with Nile Rodgers’ guitar leading the way, and stays there for six minutes, starting out as all Pharrell, before Daft Punk layer on the auto-tuned “Come Ons” and “Everybody on the floors” to create a compelling kaleidoscope of addictive sound. I wasn’t surprised when I hit repeat on this one a few times.

“Touch” is a bit like the non-identical twin of “Giorgio by Moroder” – a lengthy (8+ minutes), experimental epic. But where the latter was largely driven by electro sounds, this one is based around psychedelia and the piano-driven hits of yesteryear; think Queen or even Elton John, complete with a sing along-friendly breakdown. Like “Giorgio…” it’s got highs and lows, fasts and slows, and on the whole is a rousing track that succeeds, but by stirring through completely different elements. Genius.

First single “Get Lucky” rings out with that radio-friendly groove, and it’s no wonder why this song may well end up being Daft Punk’s greatest hit to date. It’s the perfect balance of Pharrell Williams-penned NERD-esque pop expertise, the funk of Nile Rodgers’ guitar, and Daft Punk’s future-proof sounds, elevating this track from standard chart-topper to something more. It’s the kind of mainstream that even die-hard chart-topper haters can’t help but love.

“Beyond” starts out with brass and strings fanfare like some kind of Spielberg movie soundtrack. Think of Indiana Jones stumbling across the Lost Ark, or if you like crap films, the Crystal Skull. Then, as has become the norm on this album, it drops out and transforms completely, harking back to the downbeat pace of “Game of Love” and “Within”. It’s got a bit of a James Bond opening credits vibe to it, with stylish lashings of strings and funky guitar.

The percussive weirdness that kicks off “Motherboard” gives way to strings, acoustic guitar and woodwind, finished with a healthy dose of that trademark synth and keys. There are no vocals to speak of, just instruments that speak for themselves. It all generates a beautiful atmosphere, like being underwater but in the cosmos all at once. Very floaty.

Waiter, can you get the Steely Dan out of my Daft Punk? Actually hold up, this somehow works. My dad would enjoy this track; it’s got that chilled classic rock vibe. But again, it’s been healthily seasoned with a dose of futurism, taking it above and beyond genre peers to a level all its own. The appropriately named “Fragments of Time” takes bits from genres past, and space-age sounds of the future, blends them up and gives you an audio smoothie.

“Doin’ it Right” is an uncharacteristically minimalist track. Like The White Stripes, The Black Keys, The XX and James Blake, Daft Punk prove, with a bit of help from Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, that old cliché: less is more. With just vocals, percussion and tastefully restrained keys, they put together one of the catchier songs on the release.

The grand finale, “Contact” is suitably futuristic. It starts out with a cool little faux space station to Houston check-in from an astronaut, describing a satellite. Then as he says “there’s something out there”, you’re taken to the space church. Huge organ/synth chords kick in, which gives way to an electro build up and aggressive drum kit. It’s effectively one big build-up to a noisy ambient finish, and it’s pretty darn exhilarating…

…I suppose you can sum up Daft Punk by their album titles. Homework saw two pretty damn good students of EDM music honing their craft with an accomplished but gritty release. Discovery saw the lads burst onto the scene with a polished disc full of smash hits. Human After All proved that, well, they were human after all: a forgettable re-hash that lacked the freshness of prior releases. The Tron Soundtrack was solid, but couldn’t stand apart from the mediocre piece of cinema that inspired it.

On Random Access Memories, Daft Punk access memories, and by memories I mean bits ‘n’ bobs of genres from generations ago, along with elements borrowed from industry peers and the things they themselves have always done so well. Then they’ve pieced the memories together, creating 13 distinct parts, each with its own wholly unique identity. And it’s all executed pretty much to perfection.

Like the tortoise trying to catch up with the hare, it’s taken its sweet time. But as we all saw in that scenario, perhaps the tortoise will end up taking the lead and winning the race, becoming Daft Punk’s magnum opus. My money’s on the tortoise, because Random Access Memories is downright brilliant, and it gets ten French cyborgs out of ten from this Reviewman.Image