Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Discovery... of French House!

I am, of course, refering to none other than Daft Punk. These guys are my idols, I can rant and rave about how brilliant they are until the cows come home. And I plan to. They're not just some musicians I stumbled upon and fell into blindingly linear fandom only to move on in the years passed. To me, these guys are the real deal, two guys who started making electronic music in their bedrooms, who have grown to take on the world. Of course, I know, they are not perfect, and there are aspects of their music that I will focus on more than others. I won't even begin to touch on their upcoming soundtrack to the Tron Legacy film. I'll reserve my opinions until I hear it in its complete form.

Right now, though, I want to focus on a particular album of theirs, Discovery (2001). And I want to focus on three things in regards to it; the production, the culture in which it was produced, and what I got from it from my own personal context. I'll also branch out and touch upon their other studio albums, their live album, and I think it's important to note a phenomenal by-product of the Discovery album, and that is the film that paired up with it; Interstella 5555.

Daft Punk first came on the scene as two French dudes making low-budget house music to prove they could pull off a high quality DIY record. The result was their 1997 debut, Homework. Their major single off the album "Around the World" ironically, gained them international recognition. They went from being two French dudes to Daft Punk, the very icon of house music throughout the world. I'm not a fan of the album, but it has its moments.

From there, the duo took some time to cool off in the studio, Thomas Bangalter worked with other artists and formed one-off acts such as Stardust (The Music Feels Better With You) and Together. They donned the robo-suits for which they became reknowned for, and went back to the recording studio to spend their time producing a sleeker, more refined sound. This sound was to be their 2001 album, Discovery.

Discovery was a new direction for the duo, it was a more rounded, more polished sound, that was very much at home in the clubs, ripe for dancing out the new millenium. It was a classic house album, but there was something different about it. It was catchy, yet it had an otherworldly sound about it. Maybe it was the autotuned vocals, maybe it was the riffs cleverly sampled and disguised so well, maybe it was the beats, or the overall impression of the album. I know for one thing that autotune never sounded so good.

When I first listened to this album I was ten. I heard "One More Time" on the radio and I loved how catchy it was. I borrowed money off my parents to buy the single, and I played it on repeat in my discman. Then I borrowed money off my parents to buy the album and I played it on repeat in my discman. This was my first album. I flicked through the lyrics booklet to read along with the music. Some of them had vocals, some didn't. But, as a ten year old does, I picked favourites to listen to more than the others. It was mainly the first four, three of the main singles. One More Time, Aerodynamic, Digital Love and Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. The other ones I'd listen to if I felt like it. I also loved the videoclip for One More Time. Blue anime aliens singing and dancing, it was all very surreal, very sci-fi. But I'll talk about that more later. At this age, and over the coming years I came to be fascinated by music. I would pour over each CD again and again until I could remember just about everything about the album. I'd remember each song's title, order, year, that sort of thing. I'm not so good with that sort of thing nowdays, partly because I've got too many albums, and partly because it's been so long. One thing I love about this album is that after 9 years, I still find myself coming back to the album again and again, I love it so.

Now, moving on, sampling is a large part of house music, it's among the genre's defining qualities. This album uses samples in great chunks, and reworks them into the house music genre. Their sampling doesn't compare to the likes of the Avalanches, who seemingly use nothing but samples to construct soundscapes of vast complexities, so minutely fragmented, it can't not be impressive. The video below lines up a few of Daft Punk's samples, in their Daft Punk songs, and then in their original context, all of which are from the Discovery album, except from the last, which is a sample in Robot Rock from their 2005 album Human After All.

Some may find it shocking that such riffs have been taken without a great deal of modification and applied to Daft Punk's songs. You may even be asking why it took Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo four years to make this album. Well, to me, listening to this album now, as opposed to my ten year old self, sure I listen to the album differently. But what I see they've done here, is they've taken those samples and applied their own signature to it. In the seventies and eighties, those songs held a much different context than they do in the post-2000 clubs throughout the world. These guys must have done something right, it's not like they deliberately pulled the wool over our eyes. I, for one, admire them more for what they've accomplished from the album.

But it doesn't stop there, oh no! Two years later, the duo's work with Japanese animator, Leiji Matsumoto, resulted in "Interstella 5555", an animated house musical. What a bizarre combination! The film was essentially a series of animated music videos that strung together each song of the album into a cohesive movie. There is no dialogue in the film, other than the song lyrics, of course, yet it tells the tale of an alien band kidnapped and forced to perform their hits by the evil music agent. The plot drives deeper, love interests emerge and, while it's not the greatest story ever told, it is told in a very interesting and original way, such that you forget that you're just watching a glorified music video and you start believing that you're watching a film. Personally, I love the film. I think it's brilliant. It's another reason why I love the album.

I first watched the film probably two years ago, and even after about seven years since I first bought the album and listened to the songs, I found myself eager to watch it. I'd seen the videoclips to some of their songs. Indeed, I still remember watching the video for One More time on RAGE on Sunday mornings back when the song came out. I think it was back before Anime and Pokemon were household names. So I searched shopping centres for the DVD, and, with some persistence, I came out successful. I watched the movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Here's the videoclip for one of my favourite songs off the album: Digital Love (gotta love the autotune used properly).

As you can see, the film features anthropomorphic aliens (and various other Sci-Fi elements) that take the film "out of this world". As the album's content is truly groundbreaking, so does the movie present a world so vivid and new that it is still today, very much a pleasure to watch as the day that I bought it.

Ok, so back to the album, where I think I'll adopt a generic brand review system for the album, and go song by song down the tracklisting:

One More Time. Oh my god, the thing about hearing this song nine years later is that it is still being played. At the start of the uni semester, with orientation going on, there was a help station set up, where they had speakers playing this very song. Don't get me wrong, it's a good song, but it's way overplayed, and definitely not the best on the album. The use of autotune vocals was innovative at the time, but the song is repetitive, not so much as Around the World (or the entire Human After All album), but from this catchy starting point, the album kicks right upwards.

Aerodynamic succeeds in every way that One More Time does not. It's got the raw, organic feel of the fast, melodic guitar line replacing the autotuned voice, and the soft, phasing synths smoothing it over like butter. This was one of my favourite tracks as a kid, and I still love this song. It's definitely one of the better ones on the album. And because I like it so much, here it is:

Next up is Digital Love. You've listened to it already. It's a great song, it's a real feel-good tune. You know I love this song, and aside from the catchy, upbeat rhythm and radical guitar solos, there's not much more I can say.

Harder Better, Faster Stronger. Now this is an interesting one. At this point in the album, when I would listen as a kid, I'd give the album up to this point a perfect ten. I loved this song. I loved the quirkiness of the instrumentation and the robo-vocals. It was structured, the lyrics were repetitive and formulaic, yet in the strucutre, as with Aerodynamic and Digital Love, this electro-robo-computer music seemed to grow into something more than just that. Of course, with the phenomena that was the internet-fad, videos such as "Daft Hands" and "Daft Bodies" this song hit a different sort of popularity than One More Time or Around the World. Over time though, I've found the novelty of this song wearing off. For me, this song has lost a lot of its appeal, as I've grown to like other songs on the album that I'd previously ignored.

I never really liked Crescendolls. To me, the blend of organic samples and mechanic synths/drums never quite felt right. For an album I enjoy so much in its entirety, this would be my filler number one. I've learned to appreciate it more over time, the movie's certainly got me seeing the song in a different light, but it's nothing spectacular, as far as the rest of the album is concerned.

In terms of catchy house tunes, ripe for the dance floor, Nightvision is the actual first filler of the album. It's a short, soft, slow ambient track, soft pads progressing to a thump-thump heartbeat of the kick drum. This song never goes anywhere but in circles. It's a nice, relaxing tune, but it doesn't offer much beyond that.

Now, Superheroes is my personal apex of the album. It starts slowly. Snare roll followed by a thumping, constant beat and a whining vocal that cuts and repeats over and over and over and over. I hated it as a kid. It took too long to go somewhere, and the repeating sample was annoying. But, as a long build up usually does, it grew on me. Once you get past the intro and the synths fade in it gets its melody, and when the sparkly lead melody comes in so clear it becomes really catchy. It hangs there for most of the song, changing and evolving ever so slightly, always staying central to that catchy riff and thumping beat. It also presents a defining moment in the film, and not only is it probably my favourite song on the album, it's probably one of my favourite songs full stop.

Following Superheroes is High Life, another song I'm not overly wild about. To me, it's got a sort of Crescendolls type clash with the samples and the music, although in High Life it is not so obviously holding the song back. I guess this song makes for the perfect house track though. It's quite catchy, very repetitive, but, as with just about everything else on the album, its progression makes the song less boring and repetitive, and over time, the enjoyment of this piece will increase. It's mind-numbingly linear, but the subtle changes over the constant melodic progression is a defining quality of this song. Don't think too much, and your foot will start tapping itself.

Something About Us is different in a similar way to how Nightvision is different. It's very chilled out and has a very retro seventies/eighties sound to the bass. The song is very calm, and the little melodic interjections reflect that calmness, while elaborating a solo flair that allows the song to progress forward. The vocals are again autotuned but this time are very stripped back in the mix, with a lot more space than the other songs. It lacks the catchy danceable sound of most of the songs on the record, but instead, it has its own cutesy playfulness going on that really shines through in the movie. If you think of this album first and foremost as a dance record, you'd question why this song's on here at all, but when you listen to it as a soundtrack, there couldn't be any other way. It's a brilliant song, and while I don't listen to it as much as many others on the album, it's certainly one I enjoy listening to.

Now, here's where the album picks up again: Voyager. It's got the chords on the ambient pads and the constant drum beat, then comes the groovy bassline and the guitar licks. And again, I find Daft Punk's music seeming to grow and flair out so beautifully. It's a more repetitive piece, but it's instantly catchy, it's a Superheroes that gets straight to the point. The arpeggios (like the many others peppered throughout the album) give the song a real kick, a real zing, and, while it was never going to be a hit single, it's definitely one of my favourites off the album.

Veridis Quo, another V song, another cracker of a tune. The organ introduction and somber melodies set a slower pace and softer tone. It's repetitive, yet catchy, like with Voyager, but it's got undertones of Nightvision in its ambient mood. The beat progresses little from the beginning, and melodically, aside from the organ tune, it's just chords, yet something about this song is so satisfying. After getting a good majority of the way through the album, this is a moment of laid back relaxation with the reassurance of the steady beat and soft gated rhythm.

What follows is much less soothing. It's leather jackets and seventies haircuts acting all massive freakout like. It's Short Circuit. It's all over the place. It's crazy sound. And I don't fancy it all that much. When the short circuit shorts out, so to call it, about half way through the song, and the beat fizzles out to a softer edge, the song becomes easier on the pallette, it becomes better to listen to. And then it degrades in quality bitcrushing to a satisfying end. It's an ok song, an awkward break between Verdis Quo and Face To Face, but once you get through the hard edged first half of the song it just breaks down into something easier to listen to and easier to enjoy. It's a bit of a random nonsense filler piece, the hesitation before the finale.

And here, I must say, is where the album comes into full bloom. Face to Face was a late single for the album, it's a really amazing house song that sort of got swept to the back end of the album and forgotten about. It's catchy and quirky, and the vocals are fantastically warm and real. The music itself is segmented and flows from one riff to another, one sample, etc. in a delightfully fun and catchy way. It's a fantastic song, on it's own, in the film, wherever. Another favourite that's grown over time, although I recall enjoying it to some extent as a child. And because you've been so great reading this far, here's Face to Face:

The album finishes with a 10 minute song ironically called Too Long. It starts with a dry A Capella and, as per the style of the rest of the album, the intro is undercut with a core aspect of the main body gradually zoning in. It's sort of hypnotic the way the intro sections are sort of used to seduce you into the beat. This song is long and slow, although I find that its self awareness of being "too long" and its variations are enough to keep this song from dragging. It changes as though it is comprised of an assortment of songs. Sort of how a reprise works in a play, although, admittedly, everything in the song seems to spur from someplace new, building new riffs and melodies from others. As a closing piece it feels right. It grows and evolves into its segments, similar to Face to Face, although here it stretches these segments out until they are worn out as much as possible so that there could not possibly be another end than this. It's a great song, and it's an excellent end to one of the best albums I've ever heard.

It's a dance/house album, yes, but the thing I love about it is that it is not JUST a dance/house album. It's so much more. The songs, so infused with repetitive progression are brimming with style and flair and energy, and as a whole the album is packed with variation. The songs are fantastic, and they're still great tracks by today's standards. Six singles came from this one album, which I guess is a testament to how wide-reaching the appeal goes, to have almost half the album released as singles. And the time taken to produce the album too is a testament to how finely crafted it is. The film, only furthering the awe I have for this fantastic artistic vision. Almost ten years on I still love this album to pieces, I wouldn't be surprised if I'll still feel the same way a further ten years down the track.

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