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Daft Punk
Random Access Memories Scott Wilson , May 28th, 2013 05:46

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For those that saw it six years ago, Daft Punk's Alive tour has become the stuff of legend. The duo's audio visual pyramid created a template for the electronic music live show that many have since tried to emulate to varying degrees of success since – Etienne De Crecy has his cube, Amon Tobin has his ISAM, Scuba has his… fluorescent tubing. But despite the high concept nature of the show, it was never about the spectacle – it was about togetherness.

The Alive show felt like the logical culmination of Daft Punk's career to date. Emerging in the post-rave era of the superstar DJ, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo opted out of the public eye, and in their own way subverted the chart dance of the time, taking it back to a more neutral space. The attention may have been on the men wearing robot masks, but the men behind them wasn't important – what mattered was the shared experience of the dance. The Alive show's ten minute finale was the logical culmination of this. The message delivered was about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the knees - with DJ Falcon and Bangalter's 'Together' accompanied by images of a thousand smiling faces of all ages and from all nations beaming from the pyramid itself - but there wasn't one person who didn't go home from that show feeling a little bit better about the world.

Random Access Memories, Daft Punk's first studio album in eight years, stands in direct opposition to everything that moment six years ago seemed to represent. Much has been made of how this album is Daft Punk's attempt to recreate a kind of 70s studio album experience with high profile guest spots and classic recording techniques. On that level, it more than succeeds, but it also draws a line under the myth of Daft Punk. Where the duo were once a pair of unknowable intergalactic travellers onto which we were largely free to project anything, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo's decision to talk at length about this album and subject it to a lengthy marketing process has effectively transferred their creations out of a fictional space into the relative banality of a studio setting, where endless cash is thrown at celebrity cameos and the obsessive tweaking of a vocoder setting.

Which is not to say that these contributions are without their merits. Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers' appearances together provide the album's high points: for obvious reasons 'Get Lucky' will rightly go down as one of the greatest and likely most enduring pop songs of the decade, while 'Lose Yourself To Dance' is perhaps better still, with Rodgers channeling his contribution to David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' while Williams lays down a soulful falsetto worthy of Off The Wall era Michael Jackson. Panda Bear's appearance is equally brilliant, acting as perfect human foil to the same kind of vocoder gymnastics on 'Doin It Right' that made 'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger' one of the duo's most enduring tracks. As great as these tracks are though, it's difficult to shake the feeling that they just aren't really Daft Punk. Although the duo have never been shy of using guests on their albums – Romanthony a prime example – their contributions were never allowed to overshadow the songs themselves in the way they do here.

The other spots come across as ill-judged at best, and supremely self-indulgent at worst. It can only be assumed that 'Instant Crush' is supposed to be a vague attempt at paying tribute to the soft synth rock of Phoenix, but the presence of Julian Casablancas just makes it sound as if someone had put The Strokes' disinterested third album through a cheap Korg vocoder, while 'Touch', which features Paul Williams, is obviously meant as a grandiose, theatrical centerpiece, but it's incredibly difficult to get past just how much it sounds like a number from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Todd Edwards, although a fantastic producer, is not a fantastic vocalist, as his strained attempt at drivetime 80s soul on 'Fragments Of Time' shows. The most disappointing by far is Giorgio Moroder's monologue on 'Giorgio By Moroder', a track with a self-reflexively smug Italo hook that tries to pay homage to his legacy but ultimately reduces his involvement in the album to the equivalent of a cheap celebrity sitcom cameo.

These moments may provide extremes, but at least they inspire some kind of emotional response. The worst sections of the album are the relentlessly smooth synth prog tracks that fill the gaps in between. Although the first 17 seconds of opener 'Give Life Back To Music' offers the kind of orchestral crescendo that sets the pulse racing, it soon sinks in to a limp groove that's less Chic, and more like a hideous combination of Jean-Michel Jarre and Yes. 'The Game Of Love' is worse, a morose piece of proto-Balearica with some wholly unconvincing "sad robot" vocals.

The rest is less amusingly bad and just lazy; 'Motherboard' sounds like the duo employed Steve Reich to rip off Sebastien Tellier's 'La Ritournelle', and 'Beyond' is the kind of narcoleptic lounge you've forgotten before it's even finished. Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect that Random Access Memories should come anywhere near scaling the heights of the 2007 live show that basically redeemed the atrocity that was Human After All, but to find Bangalter and de Homem-Christo indulging in all the most horizontal aspects of their sound is more than a little disheartening.

The rousing organ chords and high resolution arpeggio of closing track 'Contact' provide the only moment where it feels as if the duo display that indefinable retro-futurism that once made their music so unique. These qualities are effectively pushed to the background throughout the rest of the album, and manifest themselves only in robot backing vocals for a cast of rotating characters. Given all the strange narratives Daft Punk have engaged in over the years – the interstellar story of Discovery, the quest of two robots to become human in the Electroma film - to find out that they're just two middle aged men indulging their studio fantasies on planet Earth somewhat ruins their message of unity.

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May 28, 2013 10:01am

Well, it's just that they finally realize that they are Human After All. It only took them 8 years.

Honestly, I like this album a lot, more than I admitted after the first reviews and all the hype. But I'm frankly disappointed with this album after what Daft Punk have achieved for twenty years now. Perhaps it what this review is all about?

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D. Basement
May 28, 2013 10:01am

Trolling, much?

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Luke Turner
May 28, 2013 10:05am

In reply to D. Basement:

Why is it "trolling" to express a balanced opinion on a record?

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D. Basement
May 28, 2013 10:19am

In reply to Luke Turner:

It's poorly written & offers no insights of it's own.

"Amusingly bad & just lazy", in fact.

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May 28, 2013 10:29am

In reply to D. Basement:

Much like the DP album

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A Clockwork Lozenge
May 28, 2013 10:33am

In reply to D. Basement:

Really? This is perhaps the first calmly written, honest response to the record I've read so far, one that seems to pay more attention to the music than the hype.
And you? Do you troll much?

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May 28, 2013 10:40am

In reply to D. Basement:

i disagree. it's really balanced and fair compared to the majority of reviews i've read - everything i've read so far is either an out-and-out bashing of it, a defence of the hype, or some kind of meta-analysis of their marketing campaign. i don't really agree with the review on a personal level but it's definitely a good, reasoned piece of writing.

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May 28, 2013 10:57am

COH is miles ahead of these guys and does this 'futuristic retro' so much better than them on his latest album.

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Rory Gibb
May 28, 2013 11:31am

In reply to D. Basement:

Funny the way that, by "poorly written", people so often mean "I disagree with the content of this review but feel the need to try and question its validity".

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May 28, 2013 12:26pm

Thanks for this review, it really bothers me how quickly some publications were willing to slap a 100 rating on this album, when it's pretty apparent that it has some real flaws. It's kind of sad and amazing how some journalists seem powerless against a competent marketing campaign - if anything, I felt echoes of Be Here Now all over again.

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May 28, 2013 12:35pm

First off, props to Scott Wilson for taking the punt on this album... definite case of sticking yer head above the parapet on this one. It's a good review, or at least better than most on this album, anyway: at least it has a pretension of being measured & distanced. Can't say I agree that 'Get Lucky' is "one of the pop songs of the decade", although I'll have to admit that Pharrell is for me an almost industrial-strength irritant.

And you make a good point - willfully ignored by others - about the irony inherent in this album's hype campaign/release, and what it means w/r/t the Daft Punk 'mythos'. Advertising an album off the back of a bunch of well-dressed shit-talking about the "current state of dance music", to then produce this self-indulgent middle-aged vanity project... is a little galling. They've obviously lost that special French self-awareness.

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May 28, 2013 1:44pm

In reply to Rory Gibb:

Spot on!

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May 28, 2013 2:03pm

I've never been a huge Daft Punk fan, I've always had more of a passing interest in their music. Disco is also not my favorite musical style, but admittedly, I was curious as to what it would be like in Daft Punk's hands.
That said, I feel that this review is pretty solid and honest about what the listener can expect (although I disagree that Motherboard and Beyond are uninspired and/or forgettable, but it's a matter of opinion). I will say that I am neither impressed nor disappointed with Random Access Memories. As a whole album, it doesn't work for me, but there are some very good moments.

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May 28, 2013 2:18pm

In reply to D. Basement:

I really like how you've made a huge clanging grammatical error while complaining about someone else's supposedly poor writing.

This is a great review, in fact: measured and objective without being too po-faced about it. Nice one.

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May 28, 2013 2:56pm

This is why The Quietus remains my favorite online music review site. They didn't believe the hype. Neither did I. RAM is an extremely derivative, boring and lazy album masked as something new and fresh. The Morodor track is a joke. DOP is basically EDM for hip bros. Kinda hip, but bros nevertheless. One if the most, if not the most, overrated electronic acts if all time. Thanks for telling it like it is Quietus.

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May 28, 2013 3:48pm

As much as I wanted to love this album, I couldn't. Sometimes the songs went on too long ("Lose Yourself To Dance") made my eyes roll (the introduction of "Giorgio By Moroder") and became embarrassing ("Fragments of Time"). The only song I can say that blew me away was "Touch", and "Get Lucky" sounds better every time I hear it. Overall, it was a decent album. I wouldn't say it was awful by any means, but it getting 9/10s and 10/10s from music review sites just baffles me. It would have been nice if they went the way of Chromatics "Kill For Love" album and made it seem aged with cracks and pops of a vinyl record, but instead made the production so clean that it feels a little artificial.

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May 28, 2013 4:34pm

Thank you Scott Wilson and The Quietus. This is a very welcome take on the album, questioning it's quality much more than most of the press, in a balanced manner, and refreshing for it.

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The Riverboat Captain
May 28, 2013 8:09pm

At last, a decent review of this record.

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May 28, 2013 8:54pm

I've always loved Daft Punk and was looking forward to this album. Unfortunately, for the most part, boring is about all that comes to mind. C'est dommage!

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Matthew Huge
May 29, 2013 3:58am

I very much appreciate this review. I do find it interesting that you don't like "Instant Crush" as I thought it to have the strongest vocal hook (in the chorus) of all the songs, second to "Get Lucky". Although I must admit, I've never heard Pheonix so I can't follow your reference.

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May 29, 2013 4:48am

why does DP, or any group of musicians we like/follow throughout the years have to remain the same as years past? why so much ageism in a field, especially a creative endeavor, where we might hope to find more liberal attitudes toward accepting ppl for who they are or are becoming as time passes? also some may just need better sound systems to enjoy DP's efforts with RAM, throw-back recording technology or not..because being treated to RAM today with it's incredible nuances flowing individually out of multiple studio speakers I heard no flaws.

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May 29, 2013 7:09am

review is ok.

But the ...comment on Jean-Michel Jarre? saying he's one half of a two headed monster with "Yes". NO.

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May 29, 2013 8:37am

I dare anyone to say they actually liked RAM the first time they listened to it - on repeat listens, a kind of glossy seduction took place, but this review is pretty spot on: it's an expensive turd with a few ephemeral hits.

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May 29, 2013 8:47am

"a hideous combination of Jean-Michel Jarre and Yes"


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May 29, 2013 1:31pm

If one recently released LP was worthy of a lengthy, Quietus-style dissection it's Random Access Memories, but you evidently couldn't be bothered.

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Ivan T. W.
May 29, 2013 4:16pm

I actually totally missed the hype train and had no idea that Daft Punk were even putting out an album until a friend on Facebook posted the video to Get Lucky about 3 days before the album came out...I was blown away by the song, and thought the idea of DP doing an album of 70s disco tracks using vintage instruments sounded amazing, so I rushed out to get the album...which mostly fell flat to me. It's not BAD, just sort of dull, none of the other tracks have the vintage glow to me that Get Lucky has, I would actually go as far as to say that it was a bad choice for first single since it sounds pretty different to the rest of the album, which has a much more cold palette. I knew that something was off when the first three songs went by and I didn't feel any elation at all. In the end, the only other songs I really liked were the other ones with Pharrell, perhaps DP should just do a whole album collaboration with him next...

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May 29, 2013 7:48pm

In reply to H.Shaw:

Are you me?

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May 31, 2013 1:23pm

I enjoyed reading this review. It was fair and the overall summary I agreed with wholeheartedly.

What I do find odd though, is how many of the songs I picked out as favourites, this reviewer has picked out as duds, and vice versa. For example, I really like the Moroder and Casablancas songs whereas the Pharrell songs I find are too long and get a tad boring.

I've found in the past that albums that receive these kind of diverse reactions often turn out to be real growers and before long become classics. I guess only time will tell...

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Andrea Parra
Nov 13, 2013 6:31pm

Love them.

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