Random Access Memories

#IMMusicMondays: How do the Robots Fair in an Age of AI? ‘Random Access Memories’ at 10 Years Old

2013 started on a Tuesday and from there, it only got better. Pop music was still in its EDM heyday and rock was busy dealing with the fact that Arctic Monkeys were about to release ‘AM‘. It would be a strong year for music, and into this, Daft Punk released ‘Random Access Memories‘. Their fourth album came about having not toured since 2007 and then appearing suddenly at Coachella. As an ending, it is fitting. But, in a time where bands don’t really end (One Direction is going to reunite any day now) the simple fact that nobody knew that it was an ending seems fitting.

Daft Punk was going through quite a lucrative and successful period even before 2013. They were launched to number one in 2007 by the artist formerly known as Kanye West, with his sampling of ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger‘. This was alongside their live shows which are widely credited as creating a surge in popularity for EDM music. The duo had also come off creating the score for 2010’s Tron Legacy which was widely regarded, as a film. In the process of making the score, the French duo of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuuel de Homem-Christo were able to experiment with and utilise a full orchestra. That process of mixing their production style and the analogue orchestra seems to have inspired them to try something a little different for their following project.   

Instead of downloading sounds and using synth presents, the duo decided to go to the musicians they loved. Drummer Omar Hakim, the man behind the sound of Dire Straits’ album ‘Brothers In Arms‘ among many other projects, describes that he would be brought in to play extended loops and just improvise on riff ideas for five or ten minutes. From this, they created a great library of sounds, which were the building blocks of the album. This process was repeated for all the album’s sections from choral arrangements to woodwind, and even acoustic drumming.

In the year-end Pitchfork top 50 list (in which RAM comes in at number 7) Stuart Berman writes:

    “Except instead of simply putting together a bunch of tracks by their most beloved artists, they went out and hired their idols to appear on new songs of their own.”

Those new songs became the luxurious album, ‘Random Access Memories a culmination of two people who are passionate about music. With inclusions like Nile Rodgers and Pharell Williams, Daft Punk were having their cake and eating it. Crafting tracks with rock riffs, funk basslines, and stylish synths, this LP is a producer’s dream. 

From the opener, this is apparent. ‘Give Life Back to Music‘ with its crisp guitar sounds and the burble of conversation part way through, alongside the repeating and building until it slowly fades out of the end of the song is laid back, but oozes cool as each part builds to its ultimate crescendo. Within ‘The Game of Love‘, the synths sound a little like an organ, and the multiple bridges create a poignant romantic track. The melodies and the little drum break come before a synthesizer comes in and creates a running scale that repeats and rolls over. Here is a moment of perfect production. 

This is an effortlessly intricate album that still holds up today. For example, the glistening production of ‘Touch‘ feels the most like a track from ‘Discovery‘. The bubbling and theremin sounds build with an engine until they finally release into Paul Williams’ unmodified singing. Every song here is rich, containing a myriad of little moments that warrant a relisten. The track ‘Giorgio by Moroder has a moment where the aforementioned Giorgio Moroder says ‘1969’ and it pairs up perfectly with a short drum fill. This makes me happy every single time. Also, Moroder is still going, having performed at Lowlands in 2019, at 79 years of age.

However, you cannot talk about ‘Random Access Memories without discussing the elephants in the room. These being ‘Get Lucky and Lose Yourself to Dance‘. That Nile Rodgers guitar hook within ‘Get Lucky was everywhere in 2013. The track is an actual song of the summer, with those bright guitars and an intricate simplicity to it. Pharrell says about the song that “it feels like the only click track they had was… the human heartbeat” as if the robots had distilled humanity into music.

The end of the song with Pharrell’s voice repeated over without the groove of the guitar makes a dancing break. This is before it all sweeps back in again. The song is just over six minutes long but luxuriates in its length. Intricate and sophisticated, ‘Get Lucky would cement itself in the charts. 

The single rose to become the sound of that summer. Released in April 2013, you could not go anywhere for a robotic vocoder singing its title over and over again. It was also a critical success winning Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards. The process of making the album was more freeform and it feels like they are having fun. Each song has moments to enjoy within. They are ‘pitstops’ of genius; as if they wanted to test a thousand different ideas and then realised they could.  

They continued to tour until touring wasn’t possible. Then in 2021, they split. Seemingly out of nowhere in an obscure video, they announced they were ditching the costumes.

In interviews given since Thomas Bangalter talked of the rise of AI as a reason that he wanted to split the duo up. “As much as I love this character, the last thing I would want to be, in the world we live in, in 2023, is a robot,” he told the BBC. As we contend with AI-generated songs from the likes of Drake and the value of art and artists in a state of flux, being automated isn’t so much of a gimmick now. They continued to create separately with Bangalter creating solo projects. Meanwhile, Homem-Christo remained active. They continued to work with their former bandmate Laurent Brancowitz, who is the guitarist of the indie group Phoenix

Now, with the tenth anniversary of the LP’s release, the robots are reuniting to release 35 minutes of extra material. Increasing the runtime to a staggering one hour and forty-nine minutes, it is a cinematic experience of an album. This might be the perfect time to release it. 

But in a world of AI-generated music and teachers having to look out for the use of ChatGPT, this may be the correct time to bring back ‘Random Access Memories‘. After all, it’s an LP that fundamentally is analog in nature. The electronic elements fit well beside these really talented musicians. Daft Punk may splice some sections but allow their talent to shine through the music. There is nothing artificial behind the intelligence in this project. ‘Random Access Memories‘ will be forever timeless and enjoyed for generations. 

Daft Punk is on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. Make sure to check out another retrospective review of Rihanna’s ‘Unapologetichere.

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