The robots are returning.
On May 20th, legendary electronic music duo Daft Punk will release Random Access Memories, their first studio album in eight years. This is a big deal.
Daft Punk is Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, two French producer/DJs who met in 1987 at their Paris high school. From the start, they were different from their peers. Their sound combined elements of house, techno, happy hardcore, acid house and synth pop, resulting in music that literally sounded like nothing else. Their artistic vision, too, was innovative, as they worked auteur eccentrics like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry to create music videos that, while totally different from each other, resulted in an unmistakable brand of weird. Their first hits, “Da Funk” and “Around the World” (Homework, 1997) broke free of rave subculture and introduced a generation to electronic music.
The duo’s next release, Discovery (2001), took an abrupt stylistic turn to sampling and poppy synths, alienating some fans who were squarely rooted in the underground sectors of electronic music at the time. But for each fan who turned up their nose, hundreds jumped on the bandwagon. The album’s lead single “One More Time” became an ubiquitous global smash hit, and was quickly followed by “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and “Digital Love.” The entire album was turned into a feature length, dialogue free animated film, Interstella 555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, expanding Daft Punk’s artistic vision even further. The album and movie are widely hailed as genius works of art and cultural touchstones.
In typical fashion, the group’s third album, Human After All, was a major departure from the sugary Discovery. Songs were repetitive, industrial and difficult to dance to. But the album, for all its criticism, still produced important electronic tracks, like the infectious “Technologic” and the pounding “Robot Rock.”
In 2006-07, Daft Punk embarked on only their second tour, Alive 2006/2007. They were world famous for their music, but no one knew much about the men behind it, and the electronic music would was buzzing in anticipation. Their first gig at the Coachella Festival (Indio, CA) changed the trajectory of both the genre and live performance forever.
Imagine: thirty thousand people are packed into a massive tent, the dance stage of the festival. Though night has fallen, the temperature still sits in the mid eighties. A dark curtain covers the stage. The lights go down, and the curtain rises. “HUMAN. ROBOT. HUMAN. ROBOT.” The crowd goes utterly insane. Before them stands a forty-foot tall pyramid of light, surrounded by a massive web of flashing strobes and colored light bars. In the pyramid stand two otherworldly beings wearing black leather jumpsuits and metallic robot heads. For the next two hours, these two aliens mix an endless stream of sonic perfection, accompanied by the best light show of all time. The Internet nearly broke the next day. Daft Punk was famous already. That night, they became legendary.
And then, nothing. Sure, the now unmistakable robots popped up from time to time, contributing to the DJ Hero videogame series, scoring Disney’s Tron: Legacy and making a surprise appearance at the Grammys with Kanye West. Daft Punk: The Brand was in full swing, but Daft Punk: The Band was nowhere to be found. Each year, rumors would surface: They were booked to play any number of major festivals or they were going to DJ on New Years Eve from the Eiffel Tower. Still, nothing.
And then, out of the blue, they were back. Two 15 second clips of new music have aired during Saturday Night Live, and the new album has been put up for presale on iTunes (without a track listing). The album features at least disco pioneer Nile Rodgers (founder of Chic) and Animal Collective drummer Panda Bear. From the two short clips, it’s clear the Daft Punk sound is still intact: those synthesized alien voices, squawking a sermon from light years away over a perfect jumble of sampled guitars and looping analog drums.
Since Alive, electronic music has entered the mainstream consciousness. The Top 40 has been overrun with synthesized beats, and everyone and their mother is rushing to fist pump the night away to commercialized, unoriginal pop techno (look no further than “Levels” for an example of this stale garbage). Does this describe you? Turn the Swedish House Mafia off for one second, and listen to Discovery all the way through.
Daft Punk, through tireless pursuit of innovation and artistic originality, created an industry that cares little about such things. Now, they are returning to remind everyone why we puny humans are powerless at the feet of our robot masters.