Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" Breaks the Spell

Although in many ways, I am still on the fence about the new Daft Punk album, I have to admit I that I am enjoying the controversy that it seems to have stirred up. On the one side, the critics would have people believe that it is the most important album of 2013, but here on the street level it seems that praise for Random Access Memories is very rarely given without some reservation. At worst, a lot of Daft Punk fans, both old and new, simply don’t care for it.

Listening to it, I think this is understandable. Since 1997, Daft Punk has become associated with well-crafted, adventurous house and dance music, a style of “robot rock” reinforced by their mechanized stage presence. Despite releasing relatively little material in the past decade, Daft Punk have garnered a devoted following that hotly anticipated the release of Random Access Memories. As an intentional tribute to late 70s disco and early 80 synth-pop, however, the album is a challenge to Daft Punk’s well-established identity.

Well, we were warned. All of the early press indicated that any fan expecting well-defined electronica would most likely be disappointed, and its true.  The cybernetic pulse of One More Time and Digital Love is largely absentIn fact, despite the persistence of vocoders and autotune to “robotize” vocals, there is significantly less mechanization present on Random Access Memories than expected. Overall, the album would sound much more at home in a roller rink circa 1978 than thumping at a late 90s rave.

But Daft Punk, in my opinion, have always been innovators. They pushed the boundaries of house music so far that they came to define it. With artists like deadmau5 and Ratatat now occupying the space that has opened up in that arena since their last proper house style release it is logical for Daft Punk to take steps to vacate.  For them to take such a dramatic turn towards nostalgia, however, begs the question: where does the innovation truly lie on Random Access Memories? How does retreading these waters deepen them?

While I do think that the album is enjoyable (not to mention pristinely produced), the tracks that overtly point to that era are not necessarily any better than the music actually of that era. I get the sense that if I really wanted to indulge in that kind of nostalgia, I would do just as well to listen to the artists that originally innovated the style. Daft Punk’s reinterpretations are not offensive, by any means, but not earth-shatteringly great.

What I do like about the album, however, is the proliferation of live instruments, and I think that this is the area in which Random Access Memories pushes Daft Punk into a new field. There are several tracks that feature their classic techno sounds, but also showcase live instruments attacking these textures with an improvisational fervor.

Here, the instinct of human hands plays off the drive of technological automation.  By its end, this tribute to the synth innovator responsible for Donna Summer's I Feel Love becomes an epic drum solo propelled the song's bass sequence.  I think its electrifying and epic - worth the price of admission!  This is the area that I would have liked to see Daft Punk step into with the Tron: Legacy soundtrack in their rearview mirror.

Additionally, with technology becoming more user-friendly and seemingly human in our everyday lives, the metaphor that Daft Punk was previously trying to sustain about themselves as "robots-making-music" could still be intact and, perhaps, even more profound as a "2.0 upgrade." Random Access Memories, however, just makes them seem like really, really talented producers dressed as robots. Spell broken.

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