Review: Daft Punk ‘Random Access Memories’ Breaks EDM’s Cruise Control

To the genre inspired so largely by Daft Punk, 'RAM' is an impossibly high new bar, a gauntlet thrown down to the play-button hand-waver DJs.

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud

I despise disco. Born among the cocaine-comedown afterglow of the world's fixation with mirrorball dance music, I learned very early on the difference between music made for dilated pupils & grinding jaws and a genuine artistic statement. But what happens when the disco kids have kids of their own, without translating the need for soul?

The result is the modern EDM movement, rich with soulless dub-by-numbers bass-dropping molly pandering. Naturally, true art finds a way, and just as there will always be outliers pushing the envelope of evolution, there's also the occasional name who will use their place in the nucleus of the EDM lexicon to vault the entire game to a new level. Enter: Daft Punk.

French duo Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, the men beneath those amazing helmets, are godfathers of the today's electronica, though their diagnosis of the current EDM landscape is one of non-plussed bemusement. Bangalter recently commented that “computers are not really music instruments” and it is “too easy to make the same music you hear on the radio,” and he's absolutely right. So, disconnecting from the game in disgust, Daft Punk spent seven years crafting movie soundtracks and tinkering about.

They rejected the scene almost entirely, or so it would seem. But I was there at Coachella 2006, when their Sahara tent set obliterated everything else under the desert sky and a new awakening dawned among both organizers and fans that EDM was an incredibly fertile and promising festival landscape – as we've seen established in the years since. To many, that set still stands as the greatest moment in the history of Coachella, a high-water mark of exhilaration, elation and all-out dancing that took the wind entirely out of the rock sails from the main stages, relegating the likes of Depeche Mode, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the rest of rock royalty on the main stages to afterthought references. 

We've been waiting, many of us since that amazing night seven long years ago, for Daft Punk to return and establish a new footing in EDM culture, a new standard in the genre. And when their new-album teaser poster hit SXSW, we lost our collective goddamned minds. A month later, thanks to a mere promo clip they were Coachella 2013's biggest act, without even touching a stage. Now, the return of Daft Punk is upon us, and while it is a magnificent work in its own right, a tapestry of complexly varied influence and inimitable signature sound, Random Access Memories arrives with a sense of anticlimax: it's virtually impossible to live up to its own expectation.

Random Access Memories is the sound of maestros recoiling from the dumb glut of the EDM scene that owes everything to them. Rather than meeting the modern musical equivalent of the Idiocracy world with cynicism and damnation, however, Bangalter and Homem-Christo simply turn over the stone and celebrate the organic life crawling beneath – with beautiful results. Live instrumentation, exquisite arrangements and magnificent production are centerpieces of evidence that, when you insist on originality with a perfectionist edge, even flirtation with campy disco can hit like a live-wire of thrashing passion. 

First-taste "Get Lucky" got our asses moving (of course it did), and "Lose Yourself to Dance" keeps the party going with Pharrell Williams' falsetto welcoming release over Nile Rodgers' slick, seductive guitar riffs. The speedy-vocal Julian Casablancas vocoder filter on "Instant Crush" is an alien arrival to a gorgeous robo-love song, with an otherworldly guitar solo.

"Touch" is at once epic, gorgeous and absolutely ridiculous, eight minutes long and packed with synth solos, a brass section and Paul Williams' awkward fragility over a gaudy showtunes vibe. How the fuck does this work? That's the mystery here, as with "Giorgio by Moroder,” which is even longer and actually finds the pioneering disco producer discussing, at length, his own journey to find "the sound of the future." It's a momentum-killing segment as far as the party goes, and I'm sure I won't be the only one setting the track to begin at 1:52 for future listens. The synth strut that follows builds to an uptempo ethereal hypnosis that opens, through a killer bass solo (featuring R&B bassist Nathan East and plucking legend James Genus) and drum breakdown, into an impossibly awesome monster groove.

The curveball of "Fragments of Time," a soulful seventies charm calling to Steely Dan, could not be more divorced in sound from the next track, the thump-dub pulse of "Doin' It Right" featuring Panda Bear of Animal Collective's distinctive vocals over a sea of robot vocoders. The divergent flow of these two tracks are ample evidence that Random Access Memories is a musical Rorschach test – it will be many things to many people, and its complex variety will keep the conversation going well beyond the year-end album lists. But to the genre inspired so largely by the architects of this album, this is an impossibly high new bar, one that has rendered the play-button hand-waver DJs painfully and obviously flaccid. 

If Deadmau5 starts playing guitar during his sets in the near future, now you know why.


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