Discovery, the multimillion selling album from Daft Punk is as much an act of reinvention as it is a sophomore release. Whilst it’s true that throughout their career the French duo of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have issued album after album of shifting styles and focus, the level of ambition displayed on their second release is simply remarkable. At a time in their career when most artists are keen to build on momentum established by a debut, Daft Punk did the unthinkable; they altered course and tempo. This 2001 release was a statement of self-definition and also a landmark within Electronic Dance Music and the world of music beyond.
The band’s first album, Homework, had captured all of the magic of a classic debut. It was bold and fresh and filled with the kind of enthusiasm that artists feel simply from being part of the landscape. In a strange period of history where the music press sometimes entertained a silly battle of abstracts–EDM is a weaker art form than Rock Music–Daft Punk poured unbridled creativity into their first engagement with the world. With the patchy, rough sounding tracks of Homework they showed the advocates of Rock that Dance music could hold it’s own in the mosh-pits, and that cross-pollination wasn’t a gimmick, but that it offered exciting rewards–the likes of which had never been heard before.
For the promotion of Homework the duo would wear face masks and endeavor to conceal their physical identities. The concept of anonymity and full engagement of the artistic persona was explored with varying degrees of style and panache. However, the band was about to embark upon pop-culture’s most successful expression of alter ego. Bangalter tells of how, at 9:09am on September 9th, 1999, during the recording of Discovery, there was a “…little accident with machinery” in the studio. After receiving some medical attention and reconstructive surgery Daft Punk remerged looking like robots with no memories of their former selves. From here on out audiences could concentrate on music, not on the men behind the music.
It could be argued that Discovery is a concept album. The exploration of childhood, and the dreams of childhood, leads listeners through the track sequence. This collection is less to do with the sounds of a band’s formative years, and more to do with how children listen to music. Usual conventions were unlearned and new avenues were opened. There’s a sense of openness about the pop and polish and prog-rock in these tunes, which underpins the classic sound–inviting remix and cementing their place in evergreen radio play.
The ambition is not to dismantle linear meanings, but to infect audiences with a sense of the inexplicable
Recorded at Daft Punk’s own studio (Daft House) in Bangalter’s home the sessions extended over a two-year period, employing much of the same equipment that had been used on Homework. Here though the duo aimed to make more concise tracks, and pushed themselves to push their instruments into new shapes. The sense of expecting more of themselves, their tools, and their environment is clear. Having completed “One More Time” in 1998, and “Too Long” in the early days of the project the band fast decided that they simply didn’t want to record another 14 House tracks in the usually accepted manner. Musically, and career-wise, the band went all in.
“One More Time” opens proceedings with an injection of vibrancy and permanent party upswing. Featuring the heavily treated vocal track of DJ, Producer and singer Romanthony, this classic pop-disco track was voted by Mixmag readers as the greatest dance record of all time. This track was Daft Punk’s best-selling single until “Get Lucky” took the world by storm in 2013, and it served as a signal of intent; demanding another spin, and exhibiting the replay-ability of all tunes that follow.
Another notorious track, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” underpins the sense of awe and belief coursing through robot veins of 1999. Hanging the vibe on nothing but hook, here the sample is lifted from Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby”, a funked-up, hand-clapping piece of wonder, which would later be reimagined by Kanye as “Stronger”. Played side by side, these genetically related tunes all show their strengths and similarities, holding their own values. However, it’s Daft Punk’s version of events, sat in between another classic track “Digital Love” and the euphoric “Crescendolls” that brings the broadest reward.
Aside from the musical implications of Discovery, it’s cultural footprint was expanded with Leiji Matsumoto’s supervision of several music videos, which would go on to appear as scenes in the feature length film Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar. The full album was used as a soundtrack to the film, made in collaboration between Daft Punk, Matsumoto, Cédric Hervet and Toei Animation. Bangalter explained that the process of recording had been as visual as it was sonic, and that animation fans would enjoy the combination of elements in a movie that detailed the kidnapping of an extraterrestrial band. The film is a treat to behold, and remains an enormously fun, hallucinatory experience.
The robots learned to cry whilst teaching humans how to dance.
Critics of the album have remarked on the ‘limited’ lyrical ability of Daft Punk, and the hodgepodge nature of genres represented in the collection. Clearly the ambition of tracks like “Aerodynamic”, with it’s wailing guitar, or “High Life” with it’s refracted vocal layering, is not to dismantle linear meanings but to infect audiences with a sense of the inexplicable. This is the arena of voyage and discovery, and so any criticism of nebulous genre definition speaks volumes of the critic’s comfort zone, and not the focus of the band.
Since the release of Discovery, Daft Punk have done nothing but take increasing steps to secure themselves as world-leaders. Whilst their path began before this album, it is through this project of tunes and films that they defined their platform, which in turn became a launch pad. The robots learned to cry whilst teaching humans how to dance, and in doing so they simultaneously defined and denied genre.
Bangalter described his album better than any mere observer: “This album takes a playful, fun, and colorful look at music. It’s about the idea of looking at something with an open mind and not asking too many questions. It’s about the true, simple, and honest relationship you have with music when you’re open to your own feelings.”
IMAGES: Virgin Records