New Album Review #6: Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (2013)
Finally, it is here. After a long 8 year wait, Daft Punk release their newest studio album Random Access Memories. Even though their 2005 Human After All had to deal with a lot of (legitimate) criticism, this record has been one of most awaited albums this year. Every little detail that leaked through caused huge waves around the internet, especially the interesting Collaborator series, that featured interviews with the featured artists.
The secret behind Daft Punk’s success is something of a mystery to me. Despite being one of my most favorite ‘bands’, I find it hard to pinpoint what excatly grabs my attention and keeps me hooked time after time. Maybe the mixture of simplicity, repetitiveness, creativity and superb sound quality? Or their robotic appearance and sci-fi inspired backstory, that I like to pretend was true? Either way, there’s something about them.
Unlike many other acts from the 90s, Daft Punk somehow managed to keep up with the fast changing times of electronic music. While some songs on their 1997 debut Homework have a definite 90s-techno feel to them, other songs like Around the World and Da Funk stood the test of time and became ageless classics; at least for me.
The coherent and well received Discovery, from the year 2001, is one of my top three albums of all time, not only because it’s groovy and creative; simplistic, but not boring. I’ll probably talk about it in detail in classic album review someday.
Anyway, my hopes and expectations are incredibly high. The song Get Lucky has already been released as a single, and even though it took some time to get used to, it is a catchy and groovy-as-hell song, that makes you crave more of the funk. Or da funk, I should say. I’m hyped to find out what else they have in store!
This album is unmistakably different from their previous work. Not only did they refrain from using any kind of sampling of other music, they also worked together with a lot of artists from the past (Giogio Moroder, Paul Williams) and the present generation (Pharell Williams, Panda Bear) as well as a lot of session musicians to achieve a new, but also old sound. The crisp live drums, the spanky clean electric guitar and the (mostly) discreet use of reverb creates the atmosphere of the late 70s, the golden age of disco. Although it is the duo’s signature style and also a popular tool back in those days, the vocoder or talkbox effect is rather excessively used in almost every song.
At first I was disappointed with this album, as I expected something else, another direction soundwise. But once I made it through I couldn’t let go and I had to listen to it again and again. It’s a grower – if you take your time with it, you’ll be rewarded. But there are still a couple of things that bother me on this.
The opening track Give Life Back to Music is powerful opening track, energetic and funky with a lot of excellent guitar work, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Sadly right afterwards, The Game of Love stalls the momentum, despite being an intriguing 80s-flavored ballad.
The voice-over by the synth-legend Giorgio Moroder in the beginning of the track Giorgio By Moroder might be interesting to hear in a documentary, but in an album that is meant to be heard numerous times I find it hardly bearable to endure him struggling with the English language. Nevertheless the rest is an engaging song with great instrumentation and solos of bass, guitar and also scratching.
Within feels rather weak because of its boring and predictable vocal melody, that fails to transport any emotions and thusly fails as a ballad. Instant Crush is another song that is somewhere between good and bad, because of its pretty stale verse but funky and amusingly weird chorus. Also, in the context of the album this song stands out because of its pop-rock sound that differs greatly from the rest.
Try listening to Lose Yourself to Dance while walking down the street, then you know how well the groove in this song works. Despite being underwhelmed at first, this really stuck in my mind for a long time. The repeating and ascending ‘Come On’s as well as the other vocoder vocals in the chorus and break are the highlight here, simple but effective and groovy.
Touch‘s long intro pays off with a powerful but also touching (get it?) ballad, even though at first I found it hard to get over the age of the singer and the ‘happy’ honky-tonk and brass. But again, if you let the song grow on you, you’ll start to hear all the tiny little detail in the instrumentation and arrangement.
The whole 6-minute version of Get Lucky has a much more natural feel to it than the single version, as each section has more time to evolve in a more organic way. Funky, cool and very easy to dance to, it is no wonder why they chose this song as their first single off the album.
Although the cheesy orchestral intro to Beyond is somewhat unnecessary and off-putting, the rest is a chilled but entertaining song with cool muted guitar lines and arpeggiated synths. This reminds of the ‘old’ Daft Punk in the Discovery-Era, but without them trying to emulate or copy that particular sound. It still fits in well with the whole style of the album.
My favorite section of this record are the last four songs, as they fulfill my expectations completely. First, the unconventional Motherboard that hypnotizes with repetitive synth arpeggios and surprises with weird but intriguing modulation craziness. The dry Fragments of Time, that make me think of California despite never having been there, feels very light and careless, like driving down an empty boulevard in Los Angeles at sunset.
Doin’ it Right might be the best song on this record for me, because of the way both of the juxtaposed vocals complement each other and hypnotize with their simple rhythms and repetitiveness. Also, this is the only song that uses a drum machine and not live drums on this record.
The final song Contact starts with a soundbite from an Apollo mission apparently describing an UFO. Because of the powerful and dynamic drumming on this track as well as the rising intensity during the song, this makes a good choice for a final track, despite being not the most interesting song per se. And, as a bonus in the end, the song gets radically destructed making a lot of freaky but cool noises. And that’s it, the whole shebang.
Sound & Production
As Daft Punk always does, they tried to mix the old with the new. In the past they achieved it by sampling older music, using vintage synthesizers and vocoders and making funk music, while the rest of the world was into techno. In Random Access Memories they recreated that past out of thin air, dismissing much of the sound that made them famous and beloved in the first place. But I like it when artist change and experiment in new way, while staying somewhat true to their original principles. Mixing the old with the new, man with machine, it is all here, but it presents itself in a different way than in the past.
RAM has a very coherent sound and should be heard as a whole album instead of single songs. This is no album, that has a couple of singles and some filler, no, this is a gesamtkunstwerk, where every little bit, from artwork to mixing, is equally important, even though I personally might not like some passages.
Sonically, this record has bigger scale than their previous work (except maybe Tron Legacy). While those albums had a rather intimate and dry sound, that still work perfectly, RAM opens up a lot space by having live drums with room sound and by using bigger instrumentation. Everything seems larger, which fits the music quite well, even though some of the simplistic charm is gone. But a lot of great sounding instruments can be heard here, recorded in perfection, like the Fender Rhodes, some vintage synthesizers and electric guitars.
There is an incredible attention to detail, as every synth, clap or drum hit seems perfectly placed. You can tell that Daft Punk don’t try to fool the audience by giving them just something with their name on, only to cash in some quick money. You can definitely hear the hard work and dedication that went into every detail while making this album.
Official Site: http://www.daftpunk.com/
The Final Judgement
Daft Punk returns to the spotlight by taking a step back into past and bringing the wonders of a forgotten era of disco into the modern world. A hypnotizing and engaging effort, that keeps the listener hooked time after time, despite a couple of questionable sections.
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