One of the hallmarks of apocalyptic fiction is the electromagnetic pulse, that technology-frying event that destroys modern car ignitions and turns most of the gadgetry we all depend on into paperweights. Now, just imagine what would happen if David Guetta, deadmau5, AVICII and Skrillex lost their Ableton Live programs to the EMP and were unable to trigger their push-button electronic dance music. The horror, the horror.
Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of the French duo Daft Punk seem ready for the worst case scenario, because their “Random Access Memories” is a great leap forward into the past, an album warmed by pumping blood and powered by sinew. As the title to the exuberant disco funk opener says, Daft Punk wants to “Give Life Back to Music,” powering their hypnotic grooves with real sticks, skins and wires and, thanks to the presence of guitarist Nile Rodgers on that song and others standouts (“Lose Yourself to Dance,” “Get Lucky”), Daft Punk’s disco now sounds as hot and expansive as classic Chic. Two decades into their career, Bangalter and Homem-Christo are experts at this music, but the collaborators on “Random Access Memories” say volumes about what they value: the centerpiece track, “Giorgio By Moroder” is a nine-minute tribute to the man who put the hot stuff into Donna Summer and the engines under “Midnight Express.” Even Paul Williams, that great 1970s cheese monger, stands tall on the soft-rocking “Touch.”
AutoTune is not on the menu for “Random Access Memories,” replaced by the Talk Boxes and Vocoders that preceded it, and the keyboards are mostly Moog Modulars or Fender Rhodes — the electric piano syncopations on “Fragments of Time” almost sound like Michael McDonald circa “What a Fool Believes” and “Real Love.” This analog approach and the warm feelings behind these songs telegraph the message that, after years of robot masks and “Digital Love,” Daft Punk is human after all.