Ask any IT wiz to give you a definition of what RAM is and does and you’ll likely get a technical description about a storage system that allows the reading of data to happen much faster, allowing quicker access and minimal lag than it would from a hard drive.
Comparable to a short-term memory that never ‘fills up’, RAM essentially allows a machine to function at its optimum performance level; while the ‘Random’ part is deceiving – simply meaning that it can be accessed directly, and is in fact rather organised and controlled in the way it enables data to be stored and retrieved to specific locations.
The parallels between RAM’s literal computer function and the title and themes of Daft Punk’s latest magnum opus, the extraordinarily hyped Random Access Memories, are neat and conceptually satisfying.
The ‘data’ that these musical robots are accessing is specifically of the past: accessing memories of their deepest stylistic influences – disco, funk, jazz fusion, RnB; eschewing cut-and-paste samples (almost) entirely for live instrumentation yet approaching it with the same “organised and controlled” methodology of a machine.
But the RAM that helps the Daft Punk robots function at their optimum level isn’t just their turning back the clock to the glory days of the 70s and 80s and the upgrading of outdated styles through a contemporary lens. The storage device that Random Access Memories draws from is the living, breathing humans that the Parisian pair of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo idolise. Namely, the roll call of A-list collaborators that have so characterised the immense marketing juggernaut that steamrolled Random Access Memories into ears worldwide.
Why snaffle a Donna Summer sample when you can use your sheer star power to go directly to the source: synth-disco godfather Giorgio Moroder? Why settle for slinky Chic guitar work in second-hand when you can simply call up Nile Rodgers for a jam?
This is the tantalising prospect that was presented to the French duo and it hardly matters which of the album’s many collaborations came first, once the two realised they could plug in directly to the source, as it were, the results snowballed. Why settle for slinky Chic guitar work in second-hand when you can simply call up Nile Rodgers for a jam?
It’s clear too that the star-studded guests were only too willing to drop everything and heed the call when it came – as seen in the ongoing making-of video series, The Collaborators.
Pharrell Williams hazily recounts an encounter with ‘The Robots’ in the same revered, statuesque rhetoric usually reserved for Zeus or Jesus. Todd Edwards, in his Brooklyn drawl, breathlessly counts his lucky stars for being allowed the privilege of a second expedition with Daft Punk (following Discovery’s ‘Face To Face’).
Meanwhile pianist extraordinaire Chilly Gonzales equally equates the cyborgs as God-like, praising them for reaching down from on high for assistance:
“They don’t really need any help, so when they ask for help, it’s because they are at such a high level and so advanced, and have such a good self-awareness – you have to have to operate on that level – that you can ask for help on certain details that are going to make the work be transcendent,”
Gonzales describes his role in the album as a “cameo actor”, one that “requires a great film director, such as Daft Punk” to be utilised to its full potential (much like the opening computer/RAM analogy).
In this way, Daft Punk mirror one of their 70s touchstones – Steely Dan. The jazz-rock forefathers who transformed from the uniform lineup of their 1972 debut into a turnstile of star session musos orbiting around the central duo of Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, in turn producing their best work (including their 1977 zenith, Aja).
Random Access Memories posits The Robots as a modern-day Fagan & Becker. In their pre-album interview with Rolling Stone, Thomas Bangalter admits as much, saying that after early electronic demos sounded like they were operating on “autopilot”, a new blueprint surfaced. “We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers… but with people.”
To this end, Daft Punk turned not only to their little black book of celebrity musicians, but to a number of virtuoso session players. Unsung heroes like drummers John Robinson Jr. who worked with Quincy Jones and played on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, and Omar Hakim, whose CV includes employment by Bowie and Miles Davis. “We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers… but with people.” – Thomas Bangalter, Daft Punk
Random Access Memories may primarily be a love letter to Daft Punk’s musical influences, but one that just so happens to have the very same people it’s addressed to, help pen it.
The ambitious musical smorgasbord of influences – slinky jazz fusion, Vaseline smeared soft rock, vintage RnB, bossy disco, 70s West Coast and 80s radio pop – combines into startling configurations that at once recall both a fetishism for a bygone era of record production and a contemporary postmodernism of musical collage, a more articulate version of the mash-up.
Nowhere is this example clearer than on the nine-minute ‘Giorgio By Moroder’ in which the eponymous producer gives an oral history, with the epic headtrip truly beginning when the Italian icon recalls discovering ‘de zound of de future’ (in his alluring European tones) in the synthesizer. The history lesson halts as the track hurtles into a 23rd century mesh of cosmic grooves, noodling keyboards, shimmering strings, and scratch beats; inventing prog-disco in the process.
It at once displays the album’s highest achievements and deep-seeded flaws. Overwrought in the most beautiful, dazzling way, it acts as a precursor to the even stranger psych-fantasy musical that is ‘Touch’, but like the rest of the album – it’s ambitious, impeccably mixed, arranged, produced, and presented by absolute masters of their craft.
Even the album’s most over-the-top moments – cast adrift somewhere between a disco-fied Dark Side Of The Moon and progged-up Thriller – have their precursors in the Daft Punk discography.
Sure, none of them are in the Eurohouse blueprint of 1997 debut Homework, but one obvious link is the vocoders that star on ‘Within’, ‘Beyond’ and Casablancas’ auto-tuned, sensitive delivery on ‘Instant Crush’. All sit fairly close on the spectrum to sophomore stunner, Discovery. (‘Digital Love’ could even conceivably be the jubilant yin to Random Access Memories’ ‘The Game Of Love’ as heartbroken yang.)
The lush orchestrations that pepper the album – such as the strings that prologue ‘Beyond’ or the cinematic ‘Motherboard’ – are also clearly the result of a skill set honed by the TRON: Legacy soundtrack.
The lyrical clichés – one of the first things Daft Punk detractors seize upon – are also out in full force. Talk of life, love, and “moments that shine” are rife, while some phrases even sound like variations on mottos peddled by the duo before. (‘Give Life Back To Music’ is fairly interchangeable with ‘The Prime Time Of Your Life’.)
Much like its title suggests, Random Access Memories’ wordplay deals almost exclusively in longing for something vague, rich and warm in tone, the same way nostalgia is.
Paul Williams’ fragile croon on the musically bonkers centrepiece ‘Touch’, recalls a “half-forgotten song;” “A tourist in a dream” aching for something damaged, lost somewhere in spiralling confusion (“a room within a room/a door behind a door”) but never recounts the actual artefact.
It takes a grandiose chorus of backing vocalists cycling a refrain of “hold on” to name the missing piece of the puzzle: love. In itself, yet another truism, like the cop-out cliché finale where the central protagonist realises “it was all a dream.”
Even the preppy upbeat numbers – generally the ones featuring Pharrell Williams doing his best soul lothario impression – have something of the artifice about them. “Like the legend of the phoenix” is a rather obtuse way to begin a song charged by the thrill of the One Night Stand.
But it’s exactly this kind of broad rhetoric that the album trades in to ensure its widest mode of accessibility; we are of course dealing with a French band that deals exclusively in English.
But even the simplest peppy slogans are less significant for not what is being said, but how. ‘Lose Yourself Dance’ threads layers of robotic voices chanting “c’mon, c’mon” into an ever-dizzying ascent, while ‘Doin’ It Right’s titular refrain achieves a similarly looping rush against Panda Bear’s cheerleader singing. …Living musicians not machines; the real smudge of human fingerprints despite the robot façade, fulfilling the prophetic title of 2005’s Human After All
It’s a clichéd defense in and of itself, but this is not an album about lyrics – or at least not the poetry or subtlety of them – but about their effect. The real focus is on the dramatic shift of the music that pillows those placeholder lines has undergone.
To call Random Access Memories ‘dance’ music needs a lot of external quantifiers. It’s lashings of jazz, funk, and disco is dance music of another era – not in any way related to the modern, electronic meaning of the genre Daft Punk helped usher in. The instrumental focus of the album delivers intimacy and intricate sonic details that a subwoofer-centric club’s speaker system cannot provide.
A record better appreciated in one (sometimes gruellingly) long, late-night sitting with the attention span of a true audiophile (probably with some wine and cheese for full effect).
Best absorbed by those that aren’t shocked by the dance pioneers employing live instrumentation, but instead appreciative of the warmth and directness of living musicians not machines; the real smudge of human fingerprints despite the robot façade, fulfilling the prophetic title of 2005’s Human After All. Random Access Memories is not an album friendly to the dance music and dubstep offshoots that pepper the charts and have subsequently stretched their oily tendrils into the wider cultural landscape.
As if in apology to the EDM progeny that they inadvertently helped spawn, Daft Punk’s love letter to the past doubles as an enormous middle finger to the Skrillexes and Justices of the world.
While any old asshole and his dog can whip up a dubstep remix in their bedroom on a Mac Air in five minutes flat, Random Access Memories is precisely the kind of ambitious, grandiose statement that only someone with the skill and matching ambition of Daft Punk could make.
As if to arrogantly say to their EDM peers “here’s an album you could only dream of creating,” because only Daft Punk have access to the best studios and musicians that money can buy and are themselves famous enough to call upon musical elite to ‘pop in’, only to turn to a sonic architecture that denounces the very electronic constitution they helped draft. As if in apology to the EDM progeny that they inadvertently helped spawn, Daft Punk’s love letter to the past doubles as an enormous middle finger to the Skrillexes and Justices of the world.
But that’s entirely the point: channelling a history of music’s most excessive, decadent genres and eras and magnifying them into an indulgent concept LP.
The cohesion that glues Random Access Memories – yet hidden in clear view in its title – is of something contemporary made to sound retro, only to be discovered in the future. A chicken-egg notion given visual display in the ‘unboxing’ promo teaser that was all but forgotten in the news of the album appearing on torrent websites (and was most likely, conspiracy theorists take note, a precursor secretly telegraphing the leak).
In the trailer, a copy of Random Access Memories is discovered on vinyl – that most hip but nonetheless vintage of formats – deep within a nervous system of blinking panels in the sci-fi shaped heart of what looks to be a futuristic spaceship. One that just so happens to have a turntable – the juxtaposition of the out-dated with the cutting edge.
This future nostalgia is the same idea that Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) struggled to articulate in his episode of The Collaborators: “Instead of sampling an old piece of music it was like recording things in an old way to make something that sounds like it was sampling, something old. But which, in turn, makes it sound new, if you know what I mean…”
In essence, the whole point and concept of Random Access Memories is a bizarre kind of echo chamber; a feedback loop which evokes something from the past but presents it in a contemporary way – a past that’s yet to be discovered by future generations.
In that opening technical definition of computer RAM, there’s a key part of the description that’s missing. RAM not only stores information so that it can be accessed quickly and efficiently – the reading of data, but also the writing of data.
Daft Punk may be accessing and organising their own kinds of musical ‘data’ from the past, but in working in such a contemporary field, they’re writing a new kind of musical history in the process.