Random Access Memories – Genius Undercover

After a long day in the studio I flipped on the T.V. to unwind for a bit, and I came across two robots that were making the audience go crazy with their music. The pulsing sounds coming from an illuminated pyramid were making history that night. The movie was Daft Punk Unchained, and the performance was Daft Punk’s infamous show at Cochella in 2006. I couldn’t stop watching the movie, and after learning more about Daft Punk and the making of Random Access Memories (R.A.M.), I decided to dig a little deeper. Rarely do I hear something that grabs my attention like this recording, and I was amazed by what I discovered. The production, the people they collaborated, the exploration of different styles and the fact that the music just makes you want to move inspired us to look in to the story of making this record. Here is what we found…

When I first heard “Give Life Back to Music,” I thought about the beginning of, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns and Roses. The vocal like howl in the songs intro continues to ascend until it sets everything up and delivers the listener into a groove that reminds me of something straight out of the late 70’s. Appetite for Destruction introduced a lot of people to G n R for the first time, and although Daft Punk has been making music for nearly 20 years, it was R.A.M. that brought them to the attention of a much wider global audience. Daft Punk is huge in the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) scene, and this rock infused intro serves as a major sonic departure for them as a band. When you go back to their early work on albums like, “Human After All,” the quality is there, but for me the rhythms that drive the songs feel very mechanical and robotic. Part of what makes R.A.M. so engaging is the live rhythm section headed by Nile Rodgers on guitar and Jon JR Robinson on drums. Mr. Robinson is cited as being the most recorded drummer in history, and Nile Rodgers has produced and written for many stars, including Madonna, Duran Duran, David Bowie, and Herbie Hancock. He also played with the house band at the Apollo Theater as a kid, and co-wrote “Rapper’s Delight” which is said to be the song that popularized rap music and put it into the mainstream. The groove is infectious on “Give Life Back to Music,” and it is evident in working with Daft Punk, Nile Rodgers has found himself once again on the cutting edge of music. As Pharrel Williams said, “it’s kind of like being in the late 70’s early 80’s but in a different universe.”

Daft Punk take it to another level with their use of the vocoder, a filter that gives a robotic like effect to the voice. Kraftwerk‘s Autobahn (1974) was one of the first successful albums to feature vocoder vocals, so it has been around for a while, but what sets this apart is how musically the group uses it as an instrument. It’s as if they listened to TPayne and all of the other artists that use modulating effects on the voice like autotune, and said “lets reference this fad, but make stunningly beautiful music with it.” A great example of this is on the second track, “Game of Love.” This song talks about a lover who has left, and the heartbreak really comes through in the song despite the dehumanizing effect used on the voice. I also love the subtle use of slide guitar on this track, combined with the duos orchestral use of the other instruments both electronic and analog. They mix old school with innovation using a custom-built modular synthesizer, and when they toured live in support of the album they used this beauty of an instrument.

In the third track, Giorgio Moroder who is the guy the song is named after, talks about his life and being one of the pioneers of electronic music. Giorgio is well known for writing and producing Donna Summer’s breakthrough hit, “Love to Love You Baby.” At about 1:45 into the song, Giorgio is talking about how he linked a click track with a modular moog synthesizer, and Daft Punk take it from there using the simple sound of a click to propel the song forward into new territory with a sound that evoke images of speeding through space. The track then mutates into a very, jazzy sounding jam, a section that conjures guitar hero shredders found on YouTube, a hardcore turntable and bass break down that finally returns to Giorgio’s voice. He leaves us with the line, “once you free you mind about the concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want.”

On the track, “Within,” Daft Punk brought in Chilly Gonzales who has worked with everyone from Feist to Drake. Apparently Chilly spent a day in the studio and did not have any idea what the finished product would sound like. The result is gorgeous. Yet another, searching melody sung through the vocoder effect coasting on top of piano and keyboard parts that seamlessly blend into one another. In a series of interviews called The Collaborators, Chilly talks about his first challenge, which was to transition up a step from a group of songs that were in A minor to Bb minor. He uses a common chord, F Major, in the intro to help ease the listener into a hauntingly beautiful melody played on acoustic piano. To me, “Within” returns to that theme of exploring who we are in the context of the digital world. With lines like, “Many rooms to explore but the doors look the same,” and “I’ve been, for sometime, looking for someone I need to know now, please tell me who I am,” I can’t help think of how fortunate we are to be able to stay connected with so many people, and yet how isolating that experience can leave us feeling as humans. As we are faced with so many choices, and different snapshots of individual realities, it can be hard to maintain a sense of personal identity. I think that is what I love about this work. The words and music really come together to support one another on this album evoking images that are contemporary and timeless.

I was surprised to find the lead singer of The Strokes, Julian Casablancas on the next track, “Instant Crush.” The placement of the song made me feel like I was waking up out of a dream which when I think about it is perfect because when you fall in love, it often happens when you least expect it. But this song is not about falling in love it’s about the ache one feels when someone you care about starts to slip away. Casablancas also plays a lead guitar part on this track that is part ColecoVision, part fuzz, and just fits.

Lose Yourself to Dance,” is infectious and just screams Nile Rodgers. The five part vocal break using the vocoder is outstanding and reminds me of African vocal stylings I have heard by established acts like Sweet Honey and the Rock, and emerging artists like Okaidja Afroso. If you want a quick intro to this album, this is this is a great place to start, and I should mention, kids love it.

They brought in Paul Willliams for the next track, “Touch,” which didn’t grab me at first, because Williams voice seemed out of place in the music. However, after listening to the track a few times, I found the orchestration of the piece to be brilliant. This is the most technically adventurous song on the album given its contrasting sections and length of eight minutes and nineteen seconds, and you can really hear the symphonic influences that Daft Punk picked up while working on the Tron Soundtrack. On “Touch,” they have found an artful way of blending stirring string parts, atmospheric choral textures and a variety of rhythmic grooves with sounds that are usually associated with EDM. The lyric, “If love is the answer you’re home, hold on,” really does it for me and is just another example of how this band understands not only some of the fundamental things that help to make great music, but how to communicate messages that can help a person find their way through life.

One of the things that define Daft Punk is that they play behind masks and rarely do interviews, so there is a bunch of mystery that surrounds the band. In talking about Daft Punk, Paul Williams gives us this gem from The Collaborators series mentioned above, “they disconnect what they are, to allow you to experience what they create.” Apparently Paul’s involvement with the movie, Phantom of the Paradise inspired Daft Punk. The main character in the movie is a rock composer who wears a mask. Artists such as David Bowie, KISS, and more contemporary phenomenon like Slipknot, Buckethead and even Sia, have of course obscured or altered their identities during performances, but I find that Daft Punk’s use of the costume to have a lot of contemporary relevance as the line between humans and machines continues to be blurred. I also love the fact that the duo went out on a limb to do things that would appear to be non-commercially viable by having two older gentlemen contribute their voices as integral parts of the album. I hear Daft Punk making amazing music while paying their respects to two great artists of the past that have made significant contributions to music. After all, it was Paul Williams who wrote, “The Rainbow Connection.”

The best-known song of the album comes in at the number 7 spot, yet again an unconventional choice. You’ve all probably heard “Get Lucky,” even if you didn’t know you had. The single reached the top ten in the music charts of over 32 countries, and has sold more than 9.3 million copies, making it one of the best-selling digital singles of all time. Now that you have some perspective on this group just listen with new ears, and be sure to check out that funky guitar riff laid down by Nile Rodgers.

Beyond” really goes over the top with the symphonic intro and sounds like it could belong on this epic movie intros, and represents yet another departure sonically for a band that was known for this: Robot Rock. Then again, if I had an orchestra at my disposal, I’d probably write an intro just to hear them play. Daft Punk has established the genius of their work by this point in the album, and they continue to drop grooves that keep the listeners interest. This track is another collaboration with Paul Williams who wrote the lyrics, and they just ooze soul. We also hear the return of the slide guitar and a hypnotic keyboard pattern played by an arpeggiator.

“Motherboard” is very experimental sounding and has a different flavor with its use of electronic percussive elements. Up to this point R.A.M featured a lot of disco influences, and with this track it’s like they are saying, “Don’t get too comfortable in your disco getup, we are here, in the 21st century. The playing is very fast and supple and has a great build to it, until it completely falls apart with something that sounds like a digital explosion. They bring back another sequence on the arpeggiator, which ties into the previous track and then they let the driving rhythm take the listener out.

On, “Fragments of Time,” they collaborated with Todd Edwards a.k.a The Messenger, Todd Imperatrice, Todd the God, who is huge in the House scene and is known for his innovative use of samples. Daft Punk and Edwards have a history together. Edwards co-produced and performed vocals on the Daft Punk song “Face to Face” from the album Discovery. They had some success together as “Face to Face, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Club chart in 2004. In, “Fragments of Time,” the lyrics refer to Todd visiting Daft Punk in LA to make the recording, and feeling like he never wanted to leave. He apparently loved the experience so much that he decided to move to L.A. In the song they were looking to reference some of the west coast sounds, citing examples like Fleetwood Mac, The Doobie Brothers and The Eagles, while maintaining a distinctly 21st century sound.

If I were to drop a track off of the record it would be, “Doin it Right.” Though, this video makes the song come alive, and is another example of how Daft Punk continues to engage their fan base. To me the song feels more mechanical and repetitive than the other tracks, still the beat feels good and they layer some nice elements together that create a memorable hook. To make the song, they collaborated with Noah Lennox better known as Panda Bear from Animal Collective. It reinforces the diverse influences they brought in to make the album successful on so many levels. Finally the last track features DJ Falcon and some historic recordings from NASA. Apparently Daft Punk called up NASA and asked them if they had any recordings they could use. They did, and so they launch us off into the stratosphere with a high-energy fast paced track, and then our transmission is cut off. Kind of makes you wonder where they are off to next? They have released albums on average about 4 years apart, so perhaps we’ll have something to look forward to in 2017. WOW…

Whole Album R.A.M. synced with Electroma: