Listening to Daft Punk’s recent release of the much heralded Random Access Memories—actually letting the hype around its release fade to white—took the whole summer. Parsing the album’s terabytes of information could take much longer. Much like modern life with its 24-hour non-stop barrage of post-post-modernist pastiche of sound and vision bites, there is simply too much here to decompose. The overall gist—via recording techniques lost in the modern day parlance and live studio musicians—seems to be a kind of analogy to the carbon-based brain—or maybe the mind—versus the computer chip and the storage of information. The real, which is to say analogous to nature, contra the virtual, the digital blip with no known natural basis. This premise alone could lead one on an infinite journey, a musical mind trip reminiscent of the best of the 70s albums from Pink Floyd and Steely Dan. That is the point, or one of them, to trip you out. Oh, and to make you dance. Because at the heart of it, this is dance music. Or it’s what dance music has become—the de rigueur repeat playlist of iTunes singles signaled, sold and sent to devices bumping in pockets and purses all over multicolored club floors worldwide. Despite what they intended. And it should and could be so much more.
The opening tracks on both Random Access Memories and Tomorrow’s Harvest are typical of the bands—Daft Punk’s “Give Life Back To Music” is funky and upbeat with a disco guitar riff and much talked of vocoded vocals that mindlessly browbeat you to “Let the music in tonight”—whereas “Gemini” begins like a deleted scene from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos from a 1979 we all wish would have been alive in sitting cross-legged amidst the Nag Champa whorls of smoke, passing records to giddy friends, wearing taupe mock turtlenecks and sipping spruce nettle tea and tequila with the HiFi blasting. Tomorrow’s Harvest is all PBS and Philip K. Dick with overtones of auteur-ish Director / Composer types like David Lynch and John Carpenter and maybe some David Cronenberg. Another Scottish ambient band, Mogwai, randomly choose their song titles, but the Edinburgh duo seem to attempt meaningful word associations to musical sketches and if they mean anything—and the depth and character of the compositions belie that they do—paint a picture of a post-apocalyptic landscape, from broad strokes sensing an impending doom to intricate and miniature panoramas of delicate and sublime intimacy.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories in Contrast to Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
These are very different bands going in very different directions. Yet, polar opposites as they are, the albums actually share some affinities:
- Europe-based electronic duos
- Much-heralded spring 2013 releases with mysterious marketing
- At least five years since previous release (no, Disney Soundtracks do not count as recordings)
- Minimized use of electronics, with more live studio instrumentation
Ok, it’s not exactly a mirror image, but there are parallels here. Yet despite what my own playlist tells me is “Electronic”, the simplified classification of genre here does not add up. Sure, the music is made and recorded electrically and a majority of the instrumentation is synthesized on various keyboards, vocoders, drum machines and other idiosyncratic instrumentia, but what is most striking is how both albums resemble a piece of the past that is necessarily non-electronic. Demonstrably so. One: a dancehall favorite with elements of R&B, soul and crossover jazz, co-recorded at great expense both digitally and analogely in a studio with a multitude of guest musicians, live percussion and guitars, and at the very least makes the young travolta in you bob your head while you comb your hair in the steamed bathroom mirror. Two: warm and craggy synth notes rise semi-sinisterly as a camera pans across the forgotten film studio lot where tumbleweeds obfuscate the clean 90 degree lines of a modernist architect’s dreamhouse obscured by the fractal branches of deciduous trees in a winter forest on the outskirts of a forgotten, perhaps post-apocalyptic, urban setting as noted by two media-shy men from their rural outpost in the New Zealand countryside.
Electronic musicians eschewing their basis of music-making is a comment on the musical world at large within the larger construct of their respective albums, themselves comments on the lives and times of humans and society in 2013. Where we are is not where we were nor where we will be. Despite all of our obsessions with yesterday and fears of tomorrow today is what matters. I find that listening to—and what is more, actually feeling a part of—Tomorrow’s Harvest occurs more of its own volition much more readily than the disparate (or is it desperate?) melding taking place on Random Access Memories, especially now playing low on the surround system in the predawn six AM greasy skied gale of a rainstorm in which as I write this. The Daft duo’s effort, while valiant, courageous and ultimately for the good of educating the industry, popular music, and listener-consumers in general, is more niche and requires more specific structure for enjoyability than regularly possible for the average 16 year-old listener, e.g. a dancehall filled with fist-pumping revellers in which colored disco lights twinkle in time to the beat emanating from the dj’s turntable-based soundsystem and not as an mp3 on your iPod. Not even as a cd. They both have that in common.