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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

DAFT PUNK - RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES

Columbia Sony Music 88883716861 EU pressing (2013, May)

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Rating: 9.8/ A+

Category: disco; funk; electrodisco; progressive; synth pop; west coast soft rock; experimental
Format: Vinyl (2x180 gram LP at 33 1/3 rpm)

Musicians:

  • Daft Punk – vocals, modular synthesizer, keyboards, guitar, production, concept, art direction
  • Panda Bear – vocals on track 12
  • Julian Casablancas – vocals, lead guitar, co-production on track 5
  • Todd Edwards – vocals, co-production on track 11
  • DJ Falcon – modular synthesizer (with Daft Punk) and co-production on track 13
  • Chilly Gonzales – keyboards on track 1; piano on track 4
  • Giorgio Moroder – voice on track 3
  • Nile Rodgers – guitar on tracks 1, 6, 8
  • Paul Williams – vocals on track 7; lyrics on track 9
  • Pharrell Williams – vocals on tracks 6, 8 

  • Additional Musicians:

  • Greg Leiszpedal steel guitar, lap steel guitar on tracks 1–3, 7–11, 14
  • Chris Caswell – keyboards on tracks 1–4, 7–11, 14; orchestration, arrangements
  • Paul Jackson, Jr. – guitar on tracks 1–3, 7–11, 14
  • Nathan Eastbass on tracks 1–6, 8, 11, 14
  • James Genus – bass on tracks 3, 7, 9–11, 13
  • John "J.R." Robinsondrums on tracks 1–6, 14
  • Omar Hakim – drums on tracks 3, 7–11, 13
  • Quinn – percussion on tracks 1, 3–5, 7, 10, 11
  • Thomas Blochondes Martenot on track 7; cristal baschet on track 10

  • Production:

  • Mick Guzauski – recording, mixing engineer
  • Peter Franco – recording engineer
  • Florian Lagatta – recording engineer
  • David Lerner – digital audio engineer
  • Bob Ludwig – general digital mastering
  • Antoine Chabert – additional mastering and lacquer cutting
  • Cédric Hervet – creative director, cover art
  • Warren Fu – cover art, illustrations



  • STOP THE PRESSES!


    NEWSFLASH: BRAND NEW POP - DANCE ALBUM SOUNDS AWESOME!

    If this were 1979, 1976 or 1973 it would be hardly worth mentioning for such was the high standard that the consumer, we the music lovers - if you are old enough to remember - enjoyed and expected everytime we doled out our six, seven or eight bucks for the new Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan or Supertramp LP at our favourite record shop. But this is afterall 2013, four decades after the release of Floyd's seminal groundbreaking album The Dark Side of the Moon [Harvest SHVL 804] and the birth of disco music as a defined genre; separate and subsequent from soul but nurtured along the decade by the rise of the slick polished discothèques, producers and analog multitrack studios. By the same token it is also three decades after the beginning of the general great decline in sound aesthetics. The fact that the introduction of the compact disc fits within this time frame is food for thought and remains debatable whether such a decline would have manifested itself regardless of the particular sound format.




    But one has only to compare Michael Jackson's Off the Wall from August 1979 to his follow-up, the record-selling Thriller from November 1982. Despite retaining the services of Quincy Jones as producer, Bruce Swedien as engineer, Westlake studios and Epic as record label and a bigger budget, the differences are huge. Music style aside, the former album sounds better owing to its warmer dynamic envelope while the latter exhibits a harsher thinner compressed sound; though admittedly the 12-inch single of "Billie Jean" showcases a punchier kick and low end than its LP version and the remainder of the album. The same can be infered with Dire Straits debut from October 1978 versus their biggest selling album Brothers in Arms from May 1985 - recorded entirely digital. Again we come to the same sonic conclusion only more so. Indeed this album reflects pretty much the abysmal 'sound of 1985' and those to follow. You can add to that the bulk of the 'big industry players', be it U2, Bowie, Bryan Adams, Phil Collins, Cindy Lauper, Van Halen, Iron Maiden, glam metal; sadly the list is simply just too long to enumerate them all.


    By happenstance both the fall of disco's near monopoly of the charts and the dawn of the digital revolution soon marked the end of a 'golden era' exemplified by huge sophisticated productions such as Pink Floyd's The Wall [Harvest SHDW 411] and Donna Summer's Bad Girls [Casablanca NBLP-2-7150]; the latter selling 5 million world wide while the former over 23 million (by comparison DSOTM sold a whopping 50 million since its inception). Originally double-LP's, both were released the same year - 1979 - and signalled major turning points for each artists. Future Floyd and Summer releases would not recapture their glory years, instead heading down a similar path as did those lush disco sounds. Little did we know back then that only a couple of years of great sound remained before sonic armageddon was at our doorsteps.


    Sadly since then, instead of witnessing an evolution we have been served decades of 'devolution' in sound quality in exchange for a myriad of mumbo-jumbo numbers with admittedly more convenience but reciprocally a flawed corporate mentality that louder equals better and sells greater; the aforementioned record numbers should put that inept theory to shame. But 'corporates' alone are not solely responsible for this futile fiasco of 'brick wall mud' thrust upon us. For too long, the new - net - generation of musicians had convinced themselves and - for awhile it seemed - their audience; that gone were the days when you needed a real hard-wired studio with experienced engineers and educated ears positioning great mics around professional musicians. I mean 'who needs them when you've got your own software DAW and free fancy plug-ins, right?' Just 'crank up that limiter' and hit REC! Too a certain degree, I can understand their wanting to cut out the middle man; don't we all at some point? Unfortunately we have seen or rather heard all too well the dreadful consequences landing on our platters and unfolding between the speakers.


    But lo and behold it seems like we have been granted a sonic saviour. And no, it is not some 'oldie' audiophile favourite like Donald Fagen leading the way, but rather Daft Punk! That's right, the same French duo, better known for their repetitive synthetic loops and heavy vocoder use, have just completed one of the most ambitious musical-sonic projects of the last 30 years. Like many, I discovered the masked duo - consisting of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo - upon their 1997 debut LP Homework [Virgin V 2821] a mélange of accessible house and 'poppish' techno that sprouted two megahits: "Da Funk" and "Around the World". Heavily synthesized with 'gritty' treble textures, it nonetheless featured an interesting punchy kick and bass line foundation; enough so to still find it available at hifi shows many years later and solidifying its semi-audiophile credentials.



    I must confess that I kind of loss track of their two following albums Discovery [Virgin V2940] and Human After All [Virgin LP-V 2996] though certainly not so with this latest release - Random Access Memories. Long in the making and financially 'outrageous' especially in this day and age of rampant accessible downloading, it took vision, 'guts' and loads of cash - around one million is hinted at - to create RAM. It also helped to reach out to some of the biggest names in the music industry, past and present: People like Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers, Paul Williams and Pharell Williams to name a few. Add to that a full orchestra consisting of strings, woodwinds and choir! Now when is the last time you saw that on a 'pop' album?





    The recording spanned four years and five studios: Henson; Conway; Electric Lady and Capitol in America with Gang Recording Studio Paris in France; the latter handling the vocals while the orchestra was recorded in two days at Capitol in Hollywood and rhythm parts were spread out among the others. Daft Punk specifically requested a Neve soundboard, so they settled for Neve's newest analog console, the 72-input 88R situated in Conway's studio C. With its wide open space, this proved convenient since drums and acoustic piano could each be recorded simultaneously in their ISO booths without fear of leakage. 



    They also insisted that all outboard gear remain analog; reverb consisted mostly of real EMT 140 plates and the live chamber at Capitol. Their sound target was a warm but natural non-processed sound, much like that found in the 1970s. Flexibility was also quite important so multiple setups were used at all times. EQ was applied with great moderation favouring mic choices and placement instead. Four different mics were used for the kick; Sony C500 and AKG D112 inside, Neumann U47 FET outside and a Yamaha NS10 woofer was rigged up as a sub; having each one on a separate track allowed for a greater range of sound. AKG C451's along with the ubiquitous Senheiser MD421 and Shure SM57 completed the close-miking while a pair of Schoeps CM5U were the overheads and Neumann U87's served as room ambiance. A pair of Danish DPA’s a la B&K were used over the nine-foot Yamaha supplemented by a Neumann U 67 filling in the center flanked by the DPA’s mixed left and right. Neumanns 67 and 47 were used on some of the vocals.



    Tracking sessions were 'printed' onto Ampex analog tape on a Studer A827 at 15 ips with Dolby SR and then transfered to Pro Tools. The latter was also in use for all recording and editing, permitting to select whatever sounded best at a later date. Surprisingly, they ended up using more of the digital for the dance songs because of a 'punchier' sound and going for the warmer, less transient analog in other instances; combining specifiic parts of each in one song was also feasible. Pro Tools ran at 24/96 kHz the whole time, the A/D converted by Lynx Aurora's locked by Antelope clock. Recording and mixing of the multitrack was done by multi-platinum mixing and sound engineer Mick Guzauski at Conway; assisted by engineers Peter Franco, Florian Lagatta and Seth Waldmann. The following gives us but a glimpse of the complexity of perfectionism:


    "After the basic tracks were recorded, they took the Pro Tools files back to France, started editing, and truly realized the songs’ structures. Then they came back to LA, we did a bunch of guitar, keyboard and percussion overdubs for about two weeks. From there they went back to France for months more of editing and recording, and then they came back to LA to mix. They set up a separate Pro Tools room, editing the tracks as I was mixing them, and sort of finessing their parts – updating them as I was mixing. It was a very interactive process."


    He goes on to explain:

    "And the techs at Conway Recording were great, especially keeping up with the demands on the tape machines. We mixed to three Ampex ATR-102 half-inch tape machines simultaneously: the one at 15 ips had Aria Electronics, one at 30 ips had standard heads, and the other at 30 ips had high-fluxivity heads. They sounded slightly different, and we mixed simultaneously to all three. Daft Punk listened painstakingly to every take, A/Bing, deciding which character of analog machine best complemented the song. In a lot of cases we’d make different prints on the tapes using the same automation, but with different master fader positions for less and more saturation of the tape. Then they’d pick which print sounded best to them, to master. Every time we changed a reel, the Conway tech staff checked the recording line of all three machines with an Audio Precision analyzer, to make sure the tape was consistent and that the distortion was low. That was a very painstaking process."

    Close to 50 reels of tape were produced. Because of the sheer number of reels as well as shipping logistics such as airport security and otherwise, it was decided to keep the analog master tape(s) in the states. Mastering was done in the digital domain by Bob Ludwig at Gateway in Portand at 24/88.2; the latter being Ludwig's preferred sampling frequency to maximize the full potential of his custom equipment.



    This 'general' digital master served as the basis for which Antoine Chabert aka Chab at Translab in Paris - situated right next to Gang Studio - worked with to produce the many different music formats that we now expect in 2013: HD digital; MP3; CD and of course vinyl LP; each one having its customized master to complement the medium. Yes, you read right, even the master lacquers were cut from the 24/88.2 source files and not analog. Both Guy-Man and Thomas visited Chab to discuss exactly what they wanted to alter on the files in order to 'get back' or recreate what they felt they had lost during the A-D conversion. Thomas is the more technically inclined of the two but when comes time to choose between alternate versions, Guy-Man usually has the final say. The alterations were in fact minor consisting of slightly enhancing the punch and presence and minutely 'compressing' certain 'irrating' frequencies that robbed some of the warmth out of the original analog master. Contrary to many of today's engineers, this was not done through multiband compressors but rather with a dynamic EQ such as the Weiss EQ1 DYN 7-band equalizer which blurs the line between traditional parametric EQ and multiband compressor. Technical matters aside, it was deeply important for all parties concerned to pay particular attention in respecting the emotion of the sessions that derive not only from the great performances but equally from the myriad finely delicate sound choices affecting this project.


    Cedric Hervet who co-produced Human After All joined forces with American designer and illustrator Warren Fu in creating the cover art and illustrations while collaborating with the duo on the concept and art direction. The jacket is not deluxe but printed on standard cardboard, well folded and glued. The black background gatefold features on the front, their famous robot helmets split down the center line combining elements resembling Robocop and Iron Man. The centerfold is what appears to be an upside down acrylic keyboard while the back cover simply lists the 13 songs. Included is a 'matching' LP-sized eight page booklet reprising the cover aesthetics; comprising schematics of both helmets; full musical and technical credits including all of the orchestra musician's names - a rare occurence - as well as song lyrics.



    Each thick 180 gram LP is inserted in a near-conventional white paper sleeve with label cutout and top corners slanted; nothing fancy but a touch nicer than the 'plain jane' generic type. Granted this will not protect against static nor light surface scratches, so one must take the utmost care when removing and storing the LPs in their sleeve; either that or insert a 'MoFi style' anti static sleeve inside the original's paper, combining better rigidity and smoothness in one. The Columbia label is a replica of the post '360 Sound' circa 1973-1980s. On my copy, all sides were perfectly flat, black and shiny with no 'scuff marks' or 'bluish' hues whatsoever with the exception of side B that had one long shallow 'scratch line' almost tangeant from the outer groove to the dead wax but did not look to 'menacing'. Just by examining the lovely 'groove patterns' one can predict with some confidence that we are in for something interesting. Unfortunately Sony Music Columbia seem to have a QC problem on their hands regarding their chosen EU pressing plant; three audiophile colleagues also bought the album and I can confirm that their pressings were not up to par with my copy: one showing ugly swirl 'press residues' on all four sides, visually 'destroying' the natural lustre and beauty of a brand new LP; the second one had a few minor line marks; while a third one also had the same type of 'scratch line' on side B as well; prompting the question: Did the stamper(s) get damaged at some point? This is not what we expect from a major record label, especially after all the care that went into this project; shame on you Sony and correct the problem or work with a better pressing plant in the future!

    Mastering and cutting engineer Antoine Chabert, chose a groove-spread of close to 3 inches for side A and a mere 2 1/2 inches for side B; just over 2 7/8 inches for side C and 3 3/16 inches for side D. All 4 carried the lacquer and stamper inscription 'Chab ☆' plus 'IF LOVE IS THE ANSWER YOU'RE HOME' on the last side. With 19 minutes of music on side A; 15:20 on side B; 19:20 minutes on side C and nearly 21 minutes on side D this translates roundly to 6.3 min./inch; 6 min./inch; 6.7 min./inch and 6.6 min./inch of linear cutting displacement respectively; which fits just about within the typical 20 minute recommended limit for a 33 rpm of 'average level' cutting.


    Side A opens with "Give Life Back to Music". The modulation is cut at a low level almost like a modern MoFi. The intro bars are a bit 'grandioso' as if something big is at our doorsteps; instead we are greeted by a refreshingly bouncy and happy feeling, reminiscent of disco's last good years, right before the 'disco sucks' demolition night took over. The clean funky rhythm guitar riff could be mistaken for a newly discovered 'long lost tape' of disco superstars Chic or Sister Sledge and for good reason since the guitar and the composition is brought to you by no other than Nile Rodgers, one of the two founding members - along with Bernard Edwards - of New York-based Chic as well as producing Sister Sledge's three biggest hits: "He's the Greatest Dancer", "We are Family" and "Lost in Music". Indeed it is the latter song and Chic's "Good Times" that bears much instrumental resemblance with the current track. Instrumental, I must emphasize, 'cause the warm voices of the past are substituted here with Daft Punk's signature vocoder.



    While vocoders - a contraction of voice and encoder - were initially developed for encrypting telecommunications as far back as 1928 by who else but Bell Labs; it was only two decades later when German physicist, phoneticist and experimental acoustician Werner Meyer-Eppler, studying speech synthesis, wrote a book regarding making music strictly by electronic methods. Joining forces with composers Robert Beyer and Herbert Eimert, it is here in Darmstadt that they gave lectures on "the world of sounds of the electronic music" and "music and technology". Eventually this led to the creation of the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne - the NWDR - in 1953, where a young assistant by the name of Karlheinz Stockhausen signed on. It was not until 1974 when Kraftwerk's Autobahn [Philips 6305 231 D] introduced the vocoder as a musical instrument to the masses, even more so with Trans Europa Express [Kling Klang 1C 064-82 306] in 1977. Giorgio Moroder's 1975 underground 'alias' project Einzelgänger [Oasis 89 597 OT] experimented with it also, preceding by two years his famous electro-disco productions. Soon, Alan Parson's Project would put it to good use on "The Raven" from his 1976 debut LP Tales of Mystery and Imagination [Charisma CDS 4003 or Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-204].

     
    Leaping forward to 2013 and our current review. This represents but one particular style and period of the large family we call disco. Rodgers and Edwards were at the forefront of this slow transition from big orchestral eurodisco on one hand and simpler, harder American funky hybrids on the other into a slower paced, string-light, handclap-accented groove that ultimately paved the way to the mellower dance music of the last half of 1979, right up to about 1981 and highly influential on the S.O.L.A.R. style and label - an acronym for Sound Of Los Angeles Records. 


    What is warm though is the big fat full sound that emanates from this 2013 release; in fact quite warmer and superiorly refined than anything out of Chic's original masterings of the late 1970s or for that matter the majority of disco and dance music of that - high sound quality - period. Truth be told, Chic and Sister Sledge releases, be they 12-inch singles or LPs, were at the time below average in sound quality, mostly due by being signed to Atlantic who had the unfortunate habit of filtering out the bottom octaves around 60 Hz and sometimes at the other end of the spectrum resulting in a 'bandpass' envelope lacking warmth.


    This is easily confirmed by comparing the very first pressing of their debut 12-inch single "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" [Buddah DSC 121] mastered at Frankford/Wayne with the second pressing [Atlantic DSKO 101 or DK 4600] mastered at Atlantic by Dennis King; the Buddah copy goes down much deeper and is warmer and richer in every sense. It is a pitty that subsequent releases were subjected to Atlantic's inferior 'house sound'. A similar thing happened to the Trammps thrice switching labels and thus sound; from Buddah to Golden Fleece (PIR) to Atlantic. As such Chic's sound - even though recorded at NYC's famous Electric Lady Studios - was clearly not in the same league as disco contemporaries El Coco on AVI, Henry Stone's Miami TK label, Gamble & Huff's Philadelphia International or Salsoul.

     
    But back to the present. Here the mix is spot on. Drums and cymbals possess just the right dose of punch, release and decay for this subgenre of disco. The top end has a light degree of 'riding' emphasis and de-emphasis on the hihat. Absolutely no ear fatigue - zero. As you know this is something I rarely encounter nowadays, you just wish to turn up the volume; I can barely remember the last time I felt like that. Most often a sign of low compression and impeccable tone balance. Very impressive opening track in music and sonics especially so in this day and age of excrutiating bad sound. When you come to think of it, how appropriate given the song title.

    "The Game of Love" slows down the pace quite a lot. Wonderful natural lightly stroke cymbals in intro followed by nice snare and tom textures. Smooth keyboard arrangements backed by a warm punchy sensual groove. Vocals through vocoder processing are exquisitely refined in envelope settings. Beautiful imaging is front and center. Another winner.

    The next track seems partly inspired in 'montage' by Funkstörung's 2004 Disconnected [Studio !K7 !K7162LP]:


    "Giorgio by Moroder" leads with the electro-maestro himself - over background chatter - walking us through a journey down Munich's memory lane, recounting how at 15 he knew he wanted to be, not only a musician but a composer. From there, a smooth disco vibe accompanies Giorgio reminiscing about playing in the first discothèques circa 1969-72, seamlessly segueing into what appears to be a perfect description of Donna Summer's fifth LP I Remember Yesterday [Groovy GR 9003 or Casablanca NBLP 7056] from summer 1977; a concept album with each song showcasing different eras of the past, present and future. - The latter represented best by the now historic single "I Feel Love".



    Without doubt one of the most influential songs of the 1970s and beyond. It is rightfully considered to be the 'birth' of the subgenre called electro-disco that would heavily influence synthpop, EDM, Hi-NRG, house, techno, tech house, trance and all things electronica in the following decades. Let's not forget that it is Italian born Moroder along with British songwriter-producer Pete Bellote who discovered Summer circa 1973 and soon led to the 1975 groundbreaking erotic Eurodisco masterpiece Love To Love You Baby [Groovy DGR 8501 or Oasis OCLP 5003]; a counterpart to the 'rawer' American soul-based disco.


    - The 'click track' comes in at the exact moment he utters it in relation to the '24-track synched to the Moog' and lastly ends his personal prologue by stating his full name; but you can simply call him Giorgio. 

    A short silence; then a superb electro-disco sequencer takes center stage; the warm texture and modulation melts my mind and heart, transporting me back in time to 1977 and my youth years, tuned in to 94.3 MHz on the FM dial late Saturday nights, listening to Cerrone's "Supernature" [Malligator 773803 or J 1611] and Giorgio's original masterpiece that inspired so many: "From Here to Eternity/Utopia - Me Giorgio" [Oasis – 25 087 OT].




    The sequenced run takes a turn to a 'jazzier' arrangement changing momentarily the vibe before returning to the aforementioned synth riff but beat-free this time recalling a 'sped-up' "Tubular Bells". Giorgio makes a final appearance teaching us: 'Once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and of music being correct you can do whatever you want'. Beautiful dense strings change the atmosphere, at times borrowing from Barber's Adagio for Strings with chords evoking great pathos and majesty. The sequenced theme suddenly recurs; this time unleashing its full force in a progressive-electro hybrid torrent of truly impressive percussive elements filling the soundstage. Snappy, crisp, drum fills, crescendo; converging into a frenzy of electric guitar, modular 'space' synth and crash cymbals; terminating with a dry percussive crash and retard borrowed from Pierre Henry/Michel Colombier's Messe pour le temps présent [Philips 836.893 DSY] and Giorgio's own usage in the single's short intro to "From Here to Eternity" [Casablanca NB 897 and perhaps also Oasis 11 538 AT] coming to a complete standstill mimicking a 'powered-off' turntable.

    Completely different from the first part of the track and of anything the robotic duo ever created. Absolutely outstanding composition that kept my mind, body and feet tapping from beginning to end. A stunner even coming from the great Giorgio who in his lifetime has released his fare share of musical masterpieces. Perfect score on both counts if ever I gave one. To give you an idea of how perfectionist Daft Punk are, the duo insisted that Giorgio's 'studio monologue' was captured with three different highly valued mics, each one representing a different vintage to match the corresponding era that he was recounting. When asked, but who will notice? The engineer responded nobody but Daft Punk! If that is not the definition of an audiophile I don't know what is.


    Side B continues with the slow lyrical "Within". Chilly Gonzales plays a wonderful solo piano in the intro - incredibly well captured in timbre and its natural note decay within the room - shifting through many moods in a few bars only before hyper detailed yet sweet cymbals delicately punctuate the accompanying instruments and vocoder. The latter showing two distinct vocals sharing duties during the chorus. My sole nitpick and it is a minor one, is a short duration chime that sounds a bit digitized somewhat at odds with the rest of the refined sound.


    Upon the very first bars, "Instant Crush" instantly recalls The Alan Parson's Project 1982 hit "Eye in the Sky" [Arista 204 666] in chords, tempo and sound, so much so that it would certainly make a splendid mix or mashup. Secondary influences of Fleetwood Mac also can be felt though at a lesser degree. The snare strikes are tight, dry and concise. The synth and keyboards are very interesting in texture and width during the chorus taking on a denser, crunchy, harmonic complexity bringing 'meat on the bone' and expanding the soundfield horizontally.


    "Lose Yourself to Dance" is a slow paced, toe tapping, head bobbing funky-groove masterpiece. Extremely repetitive like most funk, afrobeat and disco songs are, it nonetheless delivers. John Robinson's drums, Nathan East's bass and of course Nile Rodgers' signature chicken scratch guitar sounds simply incredible; all supporting - N.E.R.D. and Neptunes' famed - Pharrell Williams' soulful singing, later overlapping with Daft Punk's perfectly modulated vocoder panning the stage. As the backbone beat pounds away metronomically, crisp palpable handclaps fuel the intensity and drive of the performance. Briefly the beat pauses allowing the guitar rhythm to solo for one bar after which everbody is back on line. The song builds up in a slow crescendo. The mix, tonal balance and mastering is so outstanding and fatigue-free that you just one want to turn that volume up to the max and it still does not hurt one bit! This my friends is how it should be and it very rarely is; even more now than ever I am afraid. A nice long 'analog-like' fadeout stays distortion-free until reaching the dead wax. Wow! Kudos to Chab on making all the right cutting choices. On par with "Giorgio by Moroder" for music and sound. Demo material for sure. As for the pressing 'scratch' I alluded to earlier, it remained silent the whole time.
     


    Side C changes ambiance again with "Touch". Rare instrument specialist Thomas Bloch, who as worked with Radiohead, Cage and Boulez transports us into space with his celestial Ondes Martenot, sharing sonic similarities once more with Pierre Henry/Michel Colombier's Messe pour le temps présent. Visual memories of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey with Hal 9000 and Gerry Anderson's Doppelgänger come to mind when the robotic voice attempts to communicate its 'needs'.



    Then, suddenly renowned lyricist and composer Paul Williams utters 'Touch' as if the machine metamorphoses into a human being. At first he sings softly, his 72 year old voice remarkably preserved conveying great emotion and making it seem so easy; always the mark of a true professional. This soon changes into a pure discofied anthem, adorned with 'blaxploitation-type' hihat and wah wah guitar plus synth. Drums roll in and stride piano, trumpet and clarinet jazz things up a notch, unleashing dopamine and serotonin to my brain. Following a few of these 'happy-feeling' instrumental bars, a strong rhythmic cadence breaks the mood and we are jettisoned into a Burt Bacharach-Hal David 1960s love-in ballad that celebrates 'If love is the answer you're home', 'Hold on'; tricking you in believing that the piano fade-in is actually him playing. Mick Guzauski's mix is breathtakingly flawless. As the choir equally fades-in and doubles the vocoder, you realize that you are ascending into heaven and surrounded by peace and serenity. This progresses to a higher level in space where Martenot and modular synth lead the milky way followed by drums, strings, choir, spacey sounds, all crescendo slowly with the finale of "A Day in the Life" flashing subliminally in my mind until we are left at the edge of a cliff suspended in sudden silence...


    Finally we are comforted by the return of the Phantom of Paradise backed by piano concluding 'You've almost convinced me I'm real', 'I need something more' and the last faint note fades-out. Indeed one can hear echoes of Lloyd Webber's broadway musical Phantom of the Opera and begging the question: Could RAM be adapted to such a format and venue? After listening to this French duo's prowess, I would not dismiss this far fetch idea too fast. Truly a 'pop' masterpiece in composition, arrangements, performance, mixing and mastering. Must I add: Demo! 

     
    "Get Lucky" pulls us back into the groove. And what a groove it is; provided by jazz, fusion and pop drummer Omar Hakin who's played with as diversed names as Weather Report, Miles Davis, Bowie, Chic, Madonna and Sting; East on bass; Rodgers and Paul Jackson Jr. on guitar - one of the most sought-after, L.A.-based session player, whose worked with The Temptations, Chicago and Michael Jackson to name only a few. Pharell's soulful vocals and backing are so well captured and mixed; it is the kind of natural vocal mic sound that you only get with the best of the past, think Sinatra on Capitol, Marvin on Motown or Karen Carpenter on A&M. I would not want to exaggerate and place it in the same league as Nat 'King' Cole on Capitol, for nobody can ever touch that but in the context of a pop/disco recording, it has no rivals. Towards the end, the synths add some kind of deep 'double-kicking' to the basic rhythm track during the funky vocoder chorus bars right before a short breakdown of solo kick and vocals typical of the 'classic' disco formula 'created' by Tom Moulton. Once more the mix and mastering cannot be improved upon. Coincidentally Pharell has another hit hanging on his resume with the single "Blurred Lines" featuring Robin Thicke and rapper T.I. What is interesting is that both hits are heavily influenced by vintage funky disco grooves and are topping the charts with all age demographic groups despite being dynamically less compressed than 98% of what has hit the airwaves and online streaming. So is the message finally getting through?


    "Beyond" starts with great fanfare using a full orchestra in the intro akin to an opening theme for the Emmys or the Grammys; first with energetic strings, augmented later by tympani and concert bass drum. This transitions to a relaxing, 'quiet storm-like' track with exquisitely modulated vocoder by Daft Punk that distinguishes it from mondane pseudo-smooth jazz. The drum kit is perfectly recorded and balanced for this type of song with very moderate compression and fine articulate kick and snap on the snare with just the right level of bass and guitar comp. More low key than the rest of the album in style and creativity, yet not what I would consider 'filler-up' material.

    We come to the last side with "Motherboard". An original organic funkified experimentally-tinged groove a la Atoms for Peace/Radiohead breed in structure and with slightly saturated texture, is juxtaposed with clean orchestral strings and modular synth. Snare brushes are warm, close and intimate sounding. An abrupt cadence disrupts the groove pattern manifested by a deep low end wave gushing water, metaphorsing into space sounds naturally found on Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and early JMJ material travelling fast to more modern fare such as Murcof, Funki Porcini and Anton Tobin sonic territory, ending with dripping water. Impressive wide bandwidth. Daft Punk showing a broad range of versatility in creativity and the art of sound design.


     
    "Fragments of Time" takes a 180 degree turn with a song that would fit to a tee on a late 1970s Steely Dan or a Michael McDonald-Doobie Brothers LP embracing the West Coast vibe, in style, arrangements and sound aesthetics. Drum kit is dry, tight, upbeat, snappily dynamic and very articulate, serving as an excellent PRAT test. American UK Garage House producer-remixer Todd Edwards had previously collaborated with the duo on Discovery. On this track, during the chorus, his vocals modulate in tandem with the synth, producing 'crunchy' sound combinations. Not very original but could be viewed as a throwback compliment to another warmer era than ours.   

    "Doin' It Right" is an early 1980s-like mid-tempo synth pop song. Heavy vocoder with overlapping vocals running up and down the scale over a sparse electronic kick and handclap. Quite repetitive. Probably the only track of the album that I felt did not live up to the very high calibre of the album, though it is not that bad, its inclusion is debatable.


    "Contact" terminates the album with echoes of 2001's finale. The intro features audio from the Apollo 17 mission followed by 'mid 1970s' modular synth; the kick comes in for a few beat pulses; then Hakim unleahes a high octane force of drum fills and cymbals for a few bars; pauses to let the synths run; a slow creeping crescendo of distortion starts; drums return sticking more to metronomic pulse while the distortion approaches a phaser on overload on what seems like a never ending ascending pitch; dynamics are compressed to the max as the limiters brick-wall into the red catapulting us into another dimension, a dimension of sound, of sight, of mind and finally of noise. What else could be the perfect ending for a noiseless, beautiful sounding album, but that of pure compressed noise!


    To conclude, Daft Punk's RAM is one of the all time best 'pop' albums I ever heard musically and sonically. In this instance, I'm sorry Gordon but you were wrong; the better the recording, the better the musical performance. In fact, it is the embodiment of an audiophile's wet dream. This is their 'Sgt. Pepper': blending disco, funk, electro, west coast, art pop, synth pop and space music into one cohesive album; different generations of musicians and songwriters into one cohesive unit and on top of that maintaining a cohesive sound which to my knowledge, is unheard of. It sets a new benchmark in sound production and just like Pepper's release back in June 1967, I predict many groups today must better understand Brian Wilson's initial trepidation upon hearing it. They say it cost a million bucks and it sounds like a million bucks. Now before jumping to conclusions that "Big Money" necessarily equates with great big sound, look no further than the protagonist of such - Rush (post 1982)...Springsteen and Celine; the latter two backed no less by Sony Music Columbia; the same label we have here. Yet music style aside, they embody an audiophile's worse nightmare. I believe that back in 2010, Arcade Fire's ambitious The Suburbs [Merge MGR 385] was aiming for such greatness and 'grandeur' but sadly fell well short of this level of sophistication due in part to the rollercoaster sound production and engineering; most of it subpar.

    You can make good sound even on a moderate budget; Cowboy Junkies know a thing or two about that, but above all you have got to employ people with good ears and judgement. It is quite obvious, that is one ingredient missing a lot in today's music industry. The single "Get Lucky" is playing everywhere topping the charts and according to Nielsen Soundscan, RAM sold 339 000 albums in its first week, 19 000 of them on vinyl; not bad wouldn't you say for a struggling industry? But it is important that we as audiophiles and music lovers send a strong message: Do not download it for free. Go buy the vinyl or at minimum the CD - which sounds excellent also but lacks the magic of the LP. So I think it is clear to everyone concerned, there is no more justification for turning out loud compressed junk! It is time to reverse the trend and give life back to music.


    In the end, Random Access Memories does exactly what its title suggest. It randomly accesses your most cherished memories of growing up in the 1970s: A long lost period when people; sound professionals, music producers and musicians dedicated to their craft of creating beautiful music, were rewarded to know that music fans would buy their LPs, appreciate their long studio hours and their talents on a dedicated sound system; dance in their bedroom and at the discothèque or simply air guitar and air drum. To take the time and savour the moment, opening that gatefold jacket, flipping through the booklet, reading the lyrics...that's what it was all about.
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    2 comments:

    1. Excellent review. I can not agree more with you about the quality of this record. I had a smile on my face when I was listening to it on headphones, it's been a long time since I enjoy a record this way sonically. My vinyl copy was flawless by the way.

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    2. Based entirely on your review, I checked out this release. Spot on assessment! As a musician of 30+ years, I marvel at the talent assembled for this effort and applaud their striving for exemplary standards of musicianship, engineering, and mastering: truly remarkable in this age of disposable music! Thank you for the heads-up!

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