Music

Daft Punk: Random Access Memories

Daft Punk unleash their inner disco auteurs and release a colossal, self-indulgent mess as their comeback album. And make it work.


Daft Punk

Random Access Memories

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2013-05-21
UK Release Date: 2013-05-20
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It’s bizarre to realise, but even a quick glance towards Wikipedia is enough to point out that Daft Punk have released barely anything of real importance for over a decade. The last time they felt as big as their reputation was back when Discovery ruled the world’s airwaves in the early '00s. Ever since then it’s been a serious of diminishing returns and largely forgotten releases: the deeply flawed though rather underrated Human After All only ever gets a mention when people discuss how disappointing it was, the buzz around the Tron soundtrack died down quickly after people realised it was a movie soundtrack rather than a proper Daft Punk album, and barely anyone even knows there’s a few remix albums and compilations floating around.

The only time they’ve made a ripple during the past ten years has been their famous tour in the latter half of the '00s (documented in the Alive 2007 live album). From atop their glowing pyramid, Daft Punk brought electronic dance music back into the large-scale live concert setting and at the same time redefined what was expected from such concerts. It’s the legacy of their actions like that where their importance and reputation are built on. While the French duo have been barely active for years, everything they have done from their music to their live performances to their visuals have had a huge impact on mainstream electronic music as a whole, laying down the groundwork for the EDM craze of the last few years.

And so here they are, returning from their long-time absence to a world where they have visibly left their mark, eagerly awaited by not only long-time fans but all the new audiences who have been attracted to them due to the constant presence of their shadow. The EDM scene has waited for their icons for so long to show a new way onward, but in a surprise twist Daft Punk have no interest in what’s happening right now. In interviews they’ve seemed almost dismissive of the modern state of dance music, berating its cold and mechanical nature and showing no desire to work within it. Unsurprisingly, they’ve chosen to ignore the present and look behind, returning to sounds long gone rather than continuing what they began.

They’ve moved onto a sound they have described as more warm and organic, the '70s and early '80s and, in particular, the disco part of that era, and they've replaced their electronic gadgets with live instruments and retro synthesizers. While the '70s-'80s disco scene has always flowed in Daft Punk’s veins, with Discovery especially being somewhat of a tribute to it by sampling songs from the period and bringing them back to the modern day, Random Access Memories takes a step further and wants to be the real deal rather than just a tribute. Daft Punk have drafted legends of the era like Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder into the studio and utilised instruments of the period to craft their music. It’s two disco fanatics fulfilling their wild desires and ambitions, ignoring what everyone else is doing or saying.

Sounds self-indulgent? It is. Random Access Memories carries all the signs of an album where no one outside its creators was allowed to say a word and which has been perfectionistically worked on for years in the depths of studios. It’s 75 minutes long, carries songs so ambitious they veer on pretentious in shape of multi-part suites and extended jams built around spoken word passages, treats ideas and sounds normally brushed off as corny or dated with respect and love and generally shows zero regard to what anyone might think about it. And unlike what you’d expect from what is at first glance a disco album, it’s not particularly dancey either. On surface it might be an album heavily rooted in one of the most iconic dance sounds of the recent music history, but in its essence Random Access Memories is more of an auteur album designed to tickle your brain rather than move your feet: a record created by two music nerds for their own fun rather than to get people to boogie for one more time. The more you listen the more you realise that in the end it’s not a disco album per se, but an exercise in revitalising the studio wizardry of the era.

This could be a bad thing, and often Random Access Memories feels like the concept, the ideas and the self-indulgence came first and the actual album came second. This is most notable in the how the album flows, or rather, how it doesn’t. Despite the shared aesthetics, there’s a grand amount of different moods and sounds going on throughout the 13 songs and they never fit together. The flow of the album is one of constant stops and starts and mismatched pairs, grinding down to a halt just as the party gets going and pairing up tracks with no logical continuity between one another. It feels like the album is always on shuffle and random tracks pop up whenever they please, which leads to a jarring listening experience that doesn't always do justice to the songs. The album’s self-described heart and centrepiece “Touch” represents this a bit too well. It bounces from one excellent part to another, moving from jazzy disco to beautiful choral ballads and more in mere moments, but it sounds like leftover parts put together awkwardly. Much like the album itself, it’s a composite of great parts which move from one another in an awkward, constantly halting in a way that does not let the strength of its individual parts shine. You can’t help but feel like you’re listening to an untidy pile of ideas; a feeling that stretches throughout the album.

The important thing, however, is that these ideas are genuinely great and often seriously impressive. Daft Punk have mastered the art of the hook and here that talent has been mixed with artistic ambition to create songs that are often downright impressive musical statements, while the production carries a depth and warmth previously unheard on a Daft Punk album. The lead single “Get Lucky” shows as much, as it acts like a greatest hits collection of every great musical building block of disco, taking all the elements associated with the genre and bringing them together in a masterful, effortless way that sounds both timeless and positively throwback. It’s not far away from old earworms like “Da Funk” or “One More Time”, but this time it’s armed with a smooth bass riff and flowing groove very unlikely the robotic rhythms of the past. It also makes the surprising revelation that Pharrell Williams, who does the vocals both on “Get Lucky” as well as the infectious slow groove “Lose Yourself to Dance”, is secretly a disco king who’s been waiting for all this time to emerge.

“Instant Crush” and “Fragments of Time” play with sounds that would sound natural in the cheesy depths of an AOR radio station, but they manage to evoke all the nostalgia of those sounds lovingly without falling into cringe. The former, in particular, is a brilliant bittersweet torchsong where the heavily processed vocals by Julian Casablancas sound more in form than ever in his time with the Strokes. The calmer moments like “Beyond” and “The Game of Love” take things towards the evocative, filling the air with suave, spacey soundscapes that really come alive when you put the headphones on. The greatest of all is “Giorgio by Moroder”, the real centrepiece of the album, a nine-minute journey through the life of the man in the title, narrated by Moroder himself with the music adapting in style and detail to his unfolding story. The result is such a fantastic journey through various moods and sounds that you’ll easily forgive how it starts out sounding like a Spotify advert. In many ways it’s a condensed version of the entire album’s statement: treating the past with respect and resurrecting it with love. While the album doesn't quite support its massive length, the only real letdown among the 13 songs is the the Panda Bear-featuring “Doin’ It Right”, which abandons the album’s concept entirely both in style and in production (being the only fully electronic track) and feels like a guest production someone forcefully crammed into the tracklist.

The somewhat awkward way it’s been put together and the slight overlength it has prevents Random Access Memories from being the seminal masterpiece it wants to be, but it doesn't stop the album from being a genuinely great listen. Throwback albums like this are always potentially problematic because there is a clear barrier between successfully showing your love for a particular nostalgic sound you care for and simply imitating past glories in a superficial and ultimately needless way. Daft Punk’s passion for everything the era they want to bring back represents is evident everywhere. It’s never just a pastiche or going retro for retro’s sake: they’re utilising methods of the past to create something new true to their own vision. It has no chance in hell to answer to all the hype and buzz around it, it’s not going to impact the dance music scene that reveres the robots so and you might as well be playing it on shuffle, but it’s a rich and warm musical experience that suits both the dancefloor and concentrated headphone listening in equal amounts that forms an important part of the duo’s musical journey.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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