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Daft Punk
Tron Legacy Ross Pounds , December 9th, 2010 10:59

Much has been made of how perfect a match Daft Punk are for the Tron soundtrack. One's a much loved cultural institution, out of the public eye for a significant amount of time, heavily in debt to the sounds and visuals of a bygone era, and with a love for preposterous helmetry. And the other is a French house duo who haven't released a proper album in five years.

One mustn't forget, however, how much of a different discipline the soundtrack is. Having not seen the movie itself, I can't pass judgement on how well the sounds fit the images on the screen, but Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter would have been all too aware of the pressure (especially given the budget and major-studio backing of the film itself) of creating music for a specific purpose – fitting it into something pre-defined, rather than working in a non-linear manner. An accompaniment, then, as opposed to the main event (even if, as de Homem-Christo has noted, that there was an unusually high level of collaboration between the filmmakers and the band, to the extent that the music featured often dictated where cuts would be made). Subtlety and Daft Punk aren't words one readily associates with the other (and that's not a criticism, by the way – de Homem-Christo and Bangalter do full-bloom, Technicolor shards of sound like no-one else) but subtlety is what a soundtrack calls for. The songs need to be created for a specific purpose – to fit a scene, to back some credits, to create or change a mood. Not subtle in terms of volume or power, but in terms of prominence - the last thing a filmmaker wants is for the soundtrack to jar with or overshadow what's happening on screen. As much of a coup as it was for Disney to get Daft Punk to do this soundtrack (and the prominence of their name in the advertising for the movie suggests that the studio are rather pleased with themselves, and with the end result), it ultimately, as all parties will have realised, will be secondary to the images on screen.

It's important to note that Daft Punk do have previous when it comes to cinema. They hand-picked the songs for their own film Electroma, and Bangalter, a friend of the French-Argentinian director Gaspar Noé, produced the soundtrack to Irréversible as well as taking on the role of sound effects director for Noé's most recent head-fuck, the astounding Enter the Void. It should come as no surprise, then, that they adhere to the constraints of the format fairly rigidly here. Again, there's no implied criticism: there's a very certain frame in which the band were able to work, and they fill it as full as they possibly can. Anyone expecting something in the vein of Homework or Discovery, or even the considerably weaker Human After All, will be disappointed. Approach it with an open mind, however, and there are plenty of rewards to be reaped.

First and foremost, it's a delight to see the duo return to something approaching what they're quite obviously capable of. 2005's Human After All, while not a terrible album, was unforgivably tepid by their standards, and nowhere near the halcyon days of either of their first two albums. Tron: Legacy feels like something of a fresh start; a new format in which to rekindle fires in danger of going out. As one might expect, it's more a series of sketches and vignettes than whole, fully fleshed-out songs: most of the 22 tracks on offer come in at around the two-minute mark, and vary wildly in terms of theme. There's very little in the way of vocals (bar voice snippets from the film on 'The Grid') and even less in the way of the walls of towering synths and samples that defined their earlier work. Despite the unfamiliarity, however, it works brilliantly: Homem-Christo and Bangalter sound rejuvenated, alive with the possibilities of something new.

Recorded with an 85-piece orchestra, some of the songs on offer are absolute monsters. From the crunching, thunderous trailer-soundtracking 'The Game Has Changed' to the slinky, fast-paced 'Derezzed' (the most 'Daft Punk'-sounding song on the record), listening to the soundtrack sitting in front of a laptop or at a record-store counter feels unforgivably mundane, a disservice to the sheer scale of the tracks available. It makes the listener feel like they want to be in the film, or to be re-enacting it, or at the very least watching it. Without having even seen the movie, it still conjures up images of what I imagine it to be like – the lines and blurs and razor-sharp light discs painted aurally. Whether it's true to what's actually on the screen or not, it makes listening to the songs something more than just watching the minutes go by. Crucially, it regains an element that the duo lost on their last album, and one which they previously had in abundance: fun.

But here that sense of fun comes with a caveat. Where the likes of 'Da Funk' or 'Around the World' were celebratory and joyous, the tracks here are a lot more mature, serious, foreboding even: the likes of 'Rectifier' and 'C.L.U.' are punishingly tense and absolutely huge. They roll through speakers like bolts thrown out of thunderstorms, crackling like a volcano on the tip of an explosion – ominous, menacing, enforcing a feeling of impending chaos and doom, pointing a giant metallic finger towards imminent destruction. It feels like the work of James Horner or Howard Shore without the sweeping, broad brushstrokes of emotion that they trade in. It feels, crucially, like a proper soundtrack to one of the biggest movies of the year – executed perfectly in terms of both scale and heart.

It's not all pomp and bluster, though. de Homem-Christo and Bangalter prove themselves equally capable of soundtracking those quieter moments where a particular type of subtlety is called for. The likes of 'Arrival' and 'Nocturne' trade in the cymbal crashes and orchestral swells for Thomas Newman-esque violins, sitting in the background, dictating the mood but not engulfing the images themselves.

The ultimate success here, however, is the return of the band themselves. There's something quite primal about the music Daft Punk make, and the feeling it instils. Sometimes there aren't any other words for it. The songs on Tron: Legacy are, to put it simply, fucking cool. It's Daft Punk 2: With Strings. Unabashedly geeky, owing as much to Vangelis, John Carpenter and Max Steiner as they used to owe to Cerrone and Giorgio Moroder, it's something of a creative rebirth, and a very welcome one at that. More than anything, though, it's just made me want to see Tron. And there's no better compliment than that.