I've been a fan of Gonzales' beautiful solo piano work, production work for the likes of Feist (whatever happened to...?) and his more dance orientated work. Boys Noize are a bit less on my radar these days... Having been part of the French-led noisy distorted dance movement championed by Justice and Ed Rec, German producer Alexander Ridha feels like something very much of that era.
Together here as Octave Minds you get the sense both have something to gain - Gonzales has already benefited from a glossy sheen on Ivory Tower, a record produced by Ridha, and this represents a great opportunity for Ridha to move on to something a bit less, well, noisy and overtly masculine than Boys Noize.
This single precedes a full album, is available to download from Soundcloud for free and pretty much delivers to a standard as good as either artists has achieved on their own.
The new Daft Punk album has rapidly become the most hotly anticipated album of the current decade so far, with many struggling to recall an album this hot this side of the millennium. You don't even need to put Random Access Memories on to understand why this album is such a big deal.
We don't make records like this any more. We don't approach them in this way and perhaps more importantly, the labels don't market them like this any more. There is a palpable permanence on Random Access Memories - it's built to last, to age and to be shaped by years of listening.
Unlike the French robotic duo's previous 'studio' albums, Random Access Memories wasn't recorded in their bedrooms on computers - it was recorded using analogue equipment in studios across the world (Paris, New York and Los Angeles to be precise). It wasn't funded by a label, but it wasn't recorded on the cheap or via Kickstarter - it was entirely self-funded and Thomas Bangalter proclaims it cost "more than a million dollars […] easily".
Daft Punk's last album, Human After All, took two months. They obsessed over the ridiculous detail of this record for years and incorporated a plethora of recent and classic musicians, and then one day they then just carried it into Columbia Records. In doing so Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo guaranteed this would be a record that would be marketed, sold and celebrated. It kept them in control, something Bangalter recently explained the importance of to The Observer. The first thing they did was avoid the temptation to shutter it off - something the label would no doubt have wanted.
Having teased the Pharrell Williams featuring Get Lucky at Coachella they created a storm that appeared to be almost getting out of hand. Edits of the snippet circled as the internet whipped itself into a furore. But just when it seemed like we couldn't take any more waiting Daft Punk just let it drop, releasing the full track (well, an edit) as a single. The same thing happened with the full album, available to stream in full via iTunes in the week running up to its release and then available pretty much instantly on Spotify on release day. This isn't how big bands (or more likely their labels) act with hotly anticipated albums. The latest Vampire Weekend album still isn't on Spotify, weeks after release. It's almost like Daft Punk actually want you to hear their music.
Your first actual listen to Random Access Memories tells you that this is a very different Daft Punk and you will either relish in that or be befuddled by it. The internet has changed the way we consume music to the point where everything feels like a sample of an edit of a remix of a cover and thousands of bloggers, DJs and fellow artists are combing over your music as soon as it is released, looking to find the original source material. Many stars of electronic music, Daft Punk included, have found their back catalogue ransacked and arguably, in the eyes of the faithful, somewhat devalued by the revelation that some of those killer hooks weren't actually so fresh after all. Daft Punk have also found themselves at the centre of a venn-diagram of dance genres riffing off of the output from their first three albums. In the US EDM exploded following their notorious Alive 2007 tour and in Europe Justice's and half of Kitsuné's output has long been based on Daft Punk's original formula.
So Random Access Memories is a departure precisely because departure was the only credible option. An album of more intense electronic dance music would have put Daft Punk in league with their descendants, rather than above them, and so R.A.M. is an album of more laid back and considered, maybe even (whisper it) mature songs. The internet means any tracks based purely on samples would have been uncovered near instantly and therefore it also isn't a surprise that this album is almost completely sample free - just one track, Contact, features samples and the bulk of the music is played with instruments rather than computers.
Daft Punk have made an anticipated, culturally significant and important album. But is it any good? In a word: yes. It's very good in fact, but that is not to say it is without flaws. Our short collective cultural memory seems to forget how controversial Daft Punk's second album Discovery was, precisely because it became so strong and so influential over hundreds of repeated listens. Even Human After All became more important and enjoyable through the lens of Alive 2007. It is very likely the same maturation will happen here, but R.A.M. takes a little time to explore.
First let me cover the flaws. With an album of such brazen ambition it feels a little resigned to still be pushing the vocodered and auto-tuned vocals, applied to all of Daft Punk's vocals and similarly applied to Julian Casablancas on Instant Crush (where he strangely sounds right at home following the latest Strokes album). At times though, those vocals still work - almost gospel on Touch or rhythmic on Lose Yourself To Dance - and it is difficult to think of an alternative. They are part of the myth - certainly more of the duo than their long-since forgotten faces. The melodic piano piece, Within, with the help of Chilly Gonzales, almost sounds like an Elton John song. The robotic melodies sit somewhat awkwardly and undermine the emotional punch, despite giving what would otherwise be hamfisted lyrics an added dimension.
There are also several moments that feel a little too much like filler. Maybe they will grow over time but right now Motherboard and The Game Of Love both feel like a pause for breath amongst so many set pieces, and fade from memory quickly.
There is, however, so much on Random Access Memories that is beautiful, surprising and impossible not to love. Album opener Give Life Back To Music is a pure statement of intent, almost literally jumping on the table, stamping its feet and DEMANDING more from music. Nile Rogers puts in his first appearance with a Chic-style guitar lick that gives the track an important rhythm around which Daft Punk build a ballsy track that demonstrates the scale of their new sound.
Giorgio By Moroder is already an instant classic - part documentary, part concept album and all absolute belter. The track builds around Moroder's voice, creating a musical reference to everything he describes as it happens. It's a statement of music experimentation and the drop, signalled by Moroder's line: "My name is Giovanni Giorgio, but everyone calls me Giorgio" is thrilling and incredibly touching at once, a simple love song from two musicians to one of their heros. The track's breakbeat and record scratches carry it into a new dimension and it never feels anything but thrilling, organic and alive.
Get Lucky's mirror is Lose Yourself To Dance, which also features Pharrell and is intense, demanding and almost aggressive to Get Lucky's flirty promiscuity. A heavy bass and forceful drum beat makes it very difficult not to relent to Williams' chants. It's immediately followed by R.A.M.'s most eccentric moment - the Paul Williams featuring Touch, which moves through campy disco melded into jazzy big-band through orchestral strings and on to a highly dramatic finale. It sounds, unsurprisingly given Wlliams' involvement, like a musical, ridiculous but also brilliant and a central anchor for the album's other moments.
Fragments Of Time, featuring Todd Edwards, gives the album it's title and is almost a revisit of what he made last time he collaborated with Daft Punk, then on Discovery's Face To Face. One of the most surprisingly collaborations - that with Panda Bear - turns out to work well, his vocal work bringing the wide-eyed psychedelic Beach Boys sound of Animal Collective and introducing it to the one of Daft Punk's most intensely uplifting disco tracks and the most electronic track is.
Final track Contact is an appropriate climax - by far the most intense moment on the album. It is a widescreen rocket fuelled blast-off into space that samples Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan describing a UFO from his capsule. Contact, and that sample in particular, are a fitting conclusion on an album that is about the past as much as the future, and (be it forward of back) the view from one era to another.
So it's that time of year again - Christmas is done and the excess food has started to fester. Gifts have been exchanged and everyone is now thinking about going back to work. Happy happy joy joy.
To see you through this dark week I'll be posting my picks for 2012's best album, but before we get to the top ten I wanted to call out some of the albums that were very close to making this list but were pushed out.
I've also put together a Spotify playlist that includes tracks from every album on the long-list and the top ten (provided they are available on Spotify in the UK) and a good deal of other tracks that weren't necessarily from great albums but were notable all the same. You can check that out and subscribe to it here.
And without further ado, the 2012 long-list - note the top ten are not on this list and that this list is not in any order. Links on the title / artist go to the BlackPlastic.co.uk review (where one exists), Amazon links are to Amazon.co.uk and are affiliate links:
- Solo Piano II - Chilly Gonzales [Spotify / Amazon]
- Until The Quiet Comes - Flying Lotus [Amazon]
- They Shall Inherit - Menagerie [Spotify / Amazon]
- Confess - Twin Shadow [Spotify / Amazon]
- Beams - Matthew Dear [Spotify / Amazon]
- Give You The Ghost - POLIÇA [Spotify / Amazon]
- Heirlooms - Dave Aju [Spotify / Amazon]
- Nocturne - Wild Nothing [Spotify / Amazon]
- Bloom - Beach House [Spotify / Amazon]
- Kaleidoscope Dream - Miguel [Spotify / Amazon]
- Celebration Rock - Japandroids [Spotify / Amazon]
- Electric Cables - Lightships [Spotify / Amazon]
- Sweet Heart Sweet Light - Spiritualized [Spotify / Amazon]
- Coexist - The xx [Spotify / Amazon]
- Something - Chairlift [Spotify / Amazon]
- DRM - Merveille & Crosson [Amazon]
Come back tomorrow for the first half of the top ten: 10-6!
Chilly Gonzales is a difficult artist to pin down. Eclectic doesn't even begin to cut it - over the years we have heard him to rap, electro, soul with Feist and Jamie Liddell and he even performed with Drake last year.
Most surprising of all however was his Solo Piano album of 2004, that focused solely on his piano playing. Despite the fact it is his best selling album it was relatively hard to come by for years, a collection of classical and jazz influenced piano pieces that at its best was utterly beautiful. 'Overnight' in particular is one of the most magical pieces of music I've ever heard - sometimes almost straining under it's own weight the music will accelerate and decelerate, stumbling blind with emotion (you can see it live here).
Last month Gonzales followed the album up with that rare thing in music - a sequel. And ultimately it's just more of the same... But when your album is called Solo Piano II it would seem churlish to expect anything else: just more of the same is exactly what I wanted.
If anything II feels a little more consistent - the stylings occasionally wavered a little on the original and yet here each piece feels like it has its own place. It is more wholly jazz influenced. I may not have found my 'Overnight' yet but I've found something pretty close - 'Kenaston' is delicately crafted with a gentle melody picked out against beautifully soft chords. It feels like the perfect music for late night fireside chats, walks in the snow and strong coffee, but it is also so beautiful that it deserves all of your attention.
There is a child-like wonder to parts of this album - 'Escher' sounds like Vince Guaraldi, the soundtrack to youthful abandon and adventures. There are moments of pure drama too. 'Wintermezzo' feels like the calm before a storm, full of pregnant pauses and bold crescendos, whilst 'Papa Gavotte' is helplessly romantic, full of memories and whimsy.
Solo Piano II is an album that you owe yourself to hear properly, but it may fade away if consumed too quietly in the background. Instead you should throw yourself in and let the atmosphere consume you. There really isn't enough music quite like this.