Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homen-Christo saw Phantom of the Paradise at least 20 times together during their formative years, and it’s a pretty straight line between the tropes of Brian De Palma’s mid-‘70s phantasmagoria and the ever-growing duo-as-cult that Bangalter and de Homen-Christo formed as DAFT PUNK: a code of secrecy; filtering desperate humanity through electronic filters; glittery costumes and a flair for the dramatic; an overarching thematic obsession with the man behind the mask, and the voice and soul inside the machine. Much is made of the duo’s canny publicity: the way that they dole out Daft Punk in tantalizing morsels without ever tipping their hand and letting anyone meet the humans inside the machine. The result is puzzling but clearly savvy at getting attention.
“The perfect song is framed with silence/It speaks of places never seen,” a processed voice intones on “Beyond,” at roughly the mid-way point of this week’s Random Access Memories [Daft Lite/Columbia], the group’s first record — not counting 2010’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack — since 2005’s disingenuously-titled Human After All. In the immediate wake of Human, Daft Punk were able to direct their growing cult into a frothing fervor, as their 2007 tour, which saw them performing atop twin day-glow computer pyramids, essentially bootstrapped the EDM revolution.
But while Daft Punk may have successfully found a way to bring stadium rock kicks to electronic music, no one thinks of Daft Punk’s music when they think of either “the perfect song” or, especially, “framed with silence.” Although maybe that will change, since clearly, if R.A.M. is any indication, they are two concepts that the duo has been preoccupied in the nearly-a-decade since their last record.[hr]
The most abrupt change in Daft Punk’s sound on R.A.M. is the live instrumentation, performed by seasoned professionals with deep pedigrees in ‘70s and ‘80s funk and dance. Much of the record is held down, rhythm-wise, by the drum work of either Omar Hakim and John “JR” Robinson and the bass guitar of Nathan East.[pullquote align=”right”]When last we heard from Daft Punk, they seemed poised to become the AC/DC of electronic music: standing at the top of a pyramid, making dance music that rocked.[/pullquote] These three names are basically bat signals for music dorks: Hakim, for instance, is a veteran of fusion giants Weather Report whose signature hits can be heard propelling Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms; Robinson is one of the most prolific session drummers ever, especially in the ‘80s when he played on everything from “We Are The World” to “California Girls” to “Express Yourself” to “Higher Love”; and East was largely behind the sound of both Eric Clapton’s late-‘80s Journeyman beer-ad phase and Phil Collins and Philip Bailey’s “Easy Lover.”
Between those and other sesh legends, and the overt presence of ‘70s disco super-producer Giorgio Moroder, the album is kind of like a Yacht Rock episode come to life. It rocks in a smooth and dynamic fashion that is gliding and splendid, with an attention to minute sonic detail that betrays the enormous amount of time that must have been spent. The way that the rhythm section tosses effortless flourishes to the transitions of opener “Give Life Back To Music”; the intricate and ornate glistening chilldown of ridiculously downtempo ballad “Within”; the funk-prog and Nerf-bounce of the deft and spritely “The Game of Love.”
This is music to get lost in, music to take drugs to, a record to listen to, legs splayed on a shag carpet floor, with oversized headphones plugged into the family stereo via winded cabling. It is music that lives up to every stereotype of the lush overproduced late-‘70s or early-‘80s musical ridiculousness.
Which is an odd direction for the band to have made when, when last we heard from them, they seemed poised to become the AC/DC of electronic music: standing at the top of a pyramid, making dance music that rocked, that turned digital noise into actual riffs that thumped and boomed with the beat in a way that was every bit as rock-tastic as the biggest stadium rocker. The intervening years have seen a slew of other electronic artists who are perfectly willing to come up with rafter-shaking electro-riffage, most notably deadmau5 and Skrillex, both of whom have made some of the most fundamentally rocking music of the last half-decade, all without touching a guitar or drum set.
Daft Punk, instead, decided to determinedly dial down the bombast — especially on album highlight “Instant Crush,” where a lazily determined beat and muted guitar that lock together like a Tom Petty or Motels single, only to breeze into a handclap sidestep synth party for the chorus (with appropriately dreamy vocals by Strokes mainman Julian Casablancas). It’s an odd recipe for what some think of as the most celebrated album of 2013 — months of breathless hype and hysteria leading up to a record that is subtle, deft, and understated, three adjectives that one would not normally use to describe the prankish bop-to-the-head that is Daft Punk’s calling card.[hr]
“A room within a room/A door behind a door/I need something more,” croaks Paul Williams on the eight-minute-plus prog-epic “Touch”; nearly 40 years on from his performance as Swan in Phantom of the Paradise, his voice still has a demented majesty, and listening to the track, it’s clear they didn’t draft him for this tune just because he was the co-star of their favorite childhood celluloid fantasy. In the film, Swan, as super-producer, uses the Phantom’s musical skills to craft swoony rockcraft for his newest protege, Phoenix (played by the inimitable Jessica Harper, who a few years later would play a similarly fragile artiste in Dario Argento’s slasher/ballet masterwork Suspiria). The Phantom’s songs expressed his longing, using Phoenix as the voice he no longer had; hiding in the wings of the film’s fabled Paradise Theater, rooms within rooms and doors behind doors put distance between his human emotions and the stagecraft of his alter-ego.
So it is with Daft Punk on this record: each song is filled with overt romanticism, but vocal filters and the arch distance that the duo put between themselves and the audience function to make the listener either forget that this is music made by people, or see the whole thing as an ironic statement on the production of music and the process of the blockbuster album.
“Like the legend of the phoenix/It ends with beginnings,” croons Pharrell on summer-jam-of-2013-contender “Get Lucky”; the only song on the record that screams with mainstream him potential, “Get Lucky” is, for Daft Punk, characteristically cheesy, an ode to pure lust made all the more ridiculous when paired with their robot mask public projection. But if you forget the chorus and it’s Kool And The Gang bounce, the song is an odd mix of the personal and the mythic, and that in a sense is the band and its appeal in a nutshell.
People love Daft Punk because of what they represent, of how they are the same band whether you are up close and obsessive or far away and just snapping along to a tune on the radio. They will foreground the intimate emotions, but don’t let anyone past a certain point lest you attempt to read too much into what they do.
If it’s a cynical grab for attention, it’s also using the framing devices to investigate and explore what it is that music does to people, and to find out if there is a way to take the mystery out of the interface between man and music. If that means that masks must be employed, then by all means, let the façade never crack.