Disco is pretty reviled these days. When we hear the word, there’s a snippet of a funky baseline, but there’s always an image. Disco balls, loud suits, big hair, cocaine and everything else. It’s mockable because it died out, a laughable relic of the 70s.
But disco was a break from the 4-piece trope of the mid-60s, with 3 minutes songs of verse chorus verse, led by the charisma of the performers. The fans were merely a screaming mob. With disco (and all that followed: electronica, dance music, hip hop), the creator was subsumed behind machinery, the beat itself was something that created an atmosphere that both audience and the DJ lived within. It was no longer about direct broadcasting (from singer to fan), but an emerging worship. The sound was mathematical, but the response was organic.
Daft Punk have always worn masks. The robots (and light effects) have grown more complex as their budget has increased, but they wore them to subtract their personal lives from the music. Only the most die-hard fans know their real names, and there are just a few pictures of their faces floating around the net. It’s a Pynchonesque mystique, but it allows the listener to focus on the work, instead of a tabloid image.
Just a single listen of Alive 2007 illustrates the bombast, energy and spectacular joy of their back catalog. But apparently they got tired of the electronic dance scene, a genre limited by the hotkeys in sampling software. What better way to silence the haters then to put out an analog disco record?
Two songs stand out on Random Access Memories, not just for their playtime, but the ridiculous genre shifts.
Giorgio puts a Werner Herzog-ish monologue over the raucous club scene, retelling the history of early European techno. Giorgio wants to make “the sound of the future”, and a minimalist clicking begins, with all the unthinking nuance of a metronome. The song shifts into a dark Kavinsky synth, then jam-band guitar and keyboard. The motif is picked up in full symphonic grandeur, feeding into 80’s hair band rock god solos. We traverse the years in genres of sound, the parts played by virtuosos. Everything changes except the sole melody and rhythm.
Touch is 60s psychedelia, Star Trek voice-overs, a minimalist set of lyrics, clearly spoken. The song is first defined by empty space and silence. The whole thing is theatrical, the expository song in a Broadway musical. You can’t help but envision an old pro in a trim suit, maybe white shoes and a cane, prancing about. A jolly band picks up, piano and brass, then moves into a youth chorus and full orchestra, over top spaceship zooming bleeps.
Most of the songs go through multiple movements, where a single motif is repeated with vastly different instrumentations and styles. Disco, jam band, rock, early synthy techno, full orchestra.
Get Lucky – the single – announces DP’s intentions with its lyrics. “The legend of the phoenix, ends with beginnings. We’ve come too far to give up what we are. So let’s raise the bar.” It’s all tropes of disco, made fresh.
Motherboard – their only progressive EDM track – simmers like the miniscule electrons firing on the titular reference, intricate baselines and guitar strings on top of a calculating melody. Halfway through there’s a system fault, some darker reality dredged up from the churning algorithms. The whole thing fades into off-key ambiance but it grows back into the same melody, reimagined, a phoenix rising.
Contact ends in pipe organs, snare drum, astronaut samples. What more could you want in a closer?
Random Access Memories is a statement album, trying to say something with its hundreds of retro sources and samples. It’s homage to the roots of EDM, but also something erudite, scholarly, like musical anthropology. Daft punk is digging through prehistoric DNA on the record, searching like their mournful android for their ancestry, their mythology.
Given all the hype the Daft Punk machine has produced prior to the release (and the resulting critical maelstrom), it’s no doubt the album will be respected more for its message than its sound.
But there are some new seeds in here, some mutant genetic code. I’m looking forward to the remix.