RETROSPECTIVE: Discovery, 20 Years On
Remembering Daft Punk's Magnum Opus
When planning this article, my intentions were always simple. Twenty years on from the release of Daft Punk's Discovery, I wanted to celebrate the astonishing legacy of one of my favourite albums of all time. I wanted to reflect on the ambition, the scale; the musical achievement that this record symbolises. Now, remembering Discovery twenty years on simply must become an act of memorialisation. An ode to the stellar accomplishments of two seismic musical entities, two robots of immaculate conception. An electronic group almost peerless in significance, the announcement of Daft Punk's retirement is one that demands both reverence and celebration.
It's cliché, it's over-stated, but Daft Punk changed music. Forming in Paris, 1993, the duo are responsible not only for solidifying the legitimacy of house and electronic music as art, but also for revolutionising genres beyond their supposed sphere of influence. Together, Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo didn't just propel dance music forward, but broke it apart, identified its heart and soul, and combined its ancestry and its potential into a vivid masterstroke of vibrant rainbows and glistening chrome.
Their debut LP Homework stands as an outrageously proficient leap in house music. Stand-out singles 'Da Funk' and 'Around the World' are now signposted as amongst the very best music the group ever produced, but what immediately set Daft Punk apart from their contemporaries (aside from the legion of sonic copycats that soon followed) was that Homework was a cohesive project. It flowed together with occasionally periods of gratuitously long dance loops, but the fact that Homework stood as a collection, and not just singles loosely bound together like a scrapbook of ill-fitting jigsaw pieces, indicated that Daft Punk were something so much greater than their competitors.
At it's heart, Discovery has always been an album sneakily coy in the subterfuge of its genre-classification. It's always been there, staring you in the face, that this isn't a house album. Or, if it is, it's one that successfully identifies the musical reality that has always hidden itself behind the robotic mask of 'house' music: Discovery, is Disco. Very, disco. The hints are cleverly obfuscated, but pretty clear. The album's 11th track, 'Veridis Quo' solidifies this subtle nudge towards Daft Punks' true intentions. 'Veridis Quo'. Very Disco. Disco? Very.
It's in this revelation that the intentions of Daft Punk's sophomore album lay themselves bare. This is an album that philosophically aligns itself perfectly with the unrelenting optimism; the guttural grooves; the irrepressible urge to dance that disco has always represented. There is perhaps no album like Discovery that commits itself so wholeheartedly to the expression of joy. Each sample is lifted with a simultaneous desire to replicate the carefree positivity of 1970s dance music and to repurpose the songs of the past for a new generation.
In that combination, Discovery exists in a paradox. Between Barry Manilow samples and an intensely chrome aesthetic, Daft Punk's masterpiece is identifiable as a truly timeless record. Its comfortingly familiar, fusing four-on-the-floor grooves and ear-worm melodies together into an astonishingly radio-ready project, but more than that, it somehow still sounds like a sound from the distant future. In this equilibrium of disco-heritage and sci-fi imagination, Discovery presents Daft Punk in their finest form: optimistic, ambitious and enjoyable.
I don't think you could name another song as infectiously invigorating as 'One More Time'. Opening the record with a fanfare, everything the group represents finds itself emblemised within this colossal hit. Flipping its sample with the creativity of a Dilla or Avalanches project, 'One More Time' sits on the knife-edge binary of analogue and digital extremes. The late Romanthony is funnelled through ultra-robotic vocal tones, gliding effortlessly above a purposefully choppy groove. The song somehow side-steps the uncanny valley, finding humanity in the far extremities of its computerised form.
But, occasionally derided by early critics as poster-boys for a depreciation in traditional instrumental "talent," 'Aerodynamic' and *particularly* 'Digital Love' denied any suggestion of simplicity to Daft Punk's compositions. In terms of sheer elation, the romantic hopefulness of 'Digital Love' is perhaps beyond any other of Discovery's astronomic highs. Again, the Disco influences are plain to see, along with keyboard sounds seemingly lifted directly from The Buggles' 'Video Killed The Radio Star', but as the faux-guitar solo extends itself through the tracks mid-section, the album begins to demonstrate itself as the artistic magnum opus that it is now increasingly recognised as. Its virtuosic in design, but more than sounding utterly phenomenal when rendered through its immediately recognisable tone, it serves to underpin Discovery's core philosophical purpose of irrefutably happy music.
'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger' speaks for itself. Though its construction is less impressive than its sister single 'One More Time' - lifted almost wholesale from Edwin Birdsong's 'Cola Bottle Baby' (but not as offensively as the near-plagiarism of 2005's 'Robot Rock') - the significance of 'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger' should be well recognised by now in its demonstration of the seismic impact Daft Punk had on the music industry. Looking past dance music specifically (which owes a life-debt to the groups successes and innovations) the impact that Daft Punk had creatively on Kanye West should go a long way to demonstrating the extent of their influence. Sampled on 'Stronger', and lending production to some of Yeezus's finest moments, the recognition of Daft Punk from one of the 21st century's most essential creative voices should emphasise their importance.
But it's easy to focus too much on Discovery's first half. Loaded with its prime singles, songs like 'One More Time', 'Crescendolls' and 'Superheroes' tend to dominate discussions of the album. What often goes unsung, however, is the strength of this album's second act. With the album's first half hour, Discovery establishes itself as a success through its bombastic radio-ready singles, but in many ways its closing moments are some of the most compelling in Daft Punk's career.
'High Life' is a fairly standard house track, 'Voyager' perhaps the same - albeit with a phenomenal bass line - but 'Something About Us' has gone underappreciated for far too long. Quietly, 'Something About Us' just might be the best song Discovery has to offer. Descending into a wistful melancholy, the pained longing of this smooth and soulful lament to a desperate love somehow provides a variation on the uncontainable joy of the record, optimistic still, yet Daft Punk shone from a new light. Complete with a gorgeously simple guitar solo, the stripped back groove of this song demonstrates precisely what Discovery is. Between the ones and zeroes of its vocal performances and production, there is something so unbelievably human about what the album has to say about love and the experiences of living life.
Epic in scope, the anagrammatic 'Veridis Quo', fades into view with a sonic design as meticulously moulded as anything on the duo's final LP. It rises and falls with a beautiful weightlessness, before 'Short Circuit' returns Daft Punk to Homework and 1990s house. It initiates as a moveable, if slightly one-note loop, but as it collapses and falls apart, 'Short Circuit' uses its time to draw attention to the artificiality of the album's design, all before finally permitting a moment of true, unbridled humanity.
Todd Edward's distinctly human voice on 'Face to Face' announces itself on one of the most danceable instrumentals Daft Punk ever constructed. When you delve into the details on how the samples on 'Face to Face' stitch themselves together, the sheer technical achievement of Discovery makes itself inarguable. What's more impressive however, is just how cohesive it sounds. It's the fusion of disparate elements from a wide catalogue of Daft Punk's influences, all thrown together with a distinct desire to keep its choppiness and digital construction audible, but connected to an identifiably human voice, the group's stylistic marriage of the human and the non-human renders itself fantastically, and if the merits of that were in any doubt, the (precisely) ten-minute long odyssey of 'Too Long' put it to rest.
Its for that reason that I think 2013's Random Access Memories closed the book on Daft Punk in the most perfect way imaginable. Constantly concerned with negotiating the tension between the group's emotional songwriting and the meticulous perfection of their robotic style, to transport their style back to the point of its true genesis (disco, Moroder and music, itself), the careers of Daft Punk deserve the hyperbole they have received for decades. Discovery is the product of a musical group utterly devoted to the practice of remembering musical legacies while crafting something indelibly autographed with their own stylistic signatures. In a career spanning such a monumental shift in the way music is created and consumed, partially due to the group's own successes, there is perhaps no musical entity more reflective of the spirit at the heart of song-writing.
It might have taken these two robots to convince the world that computers could sing, but through all of their successes, Daft Punk committed themselves to a career wholly reverent to music itself. Perhaps the masks were gimmicks, iterated upon by the creative bankruptcies of Deadmau5 or Marshmello, but in the acceptance of those robotic personas the duo permitted the music to speak. But more than that, Daft Punk's music spoke for everyone else. Through the reconfigurations and re-imaginings of Discovery, Daft Punk permitted a whole generation of sound to speak through them, to find their voice again in a timeless hour of futuristic sounds, illuminated by the shining lights of disco balls and single-coil pickups.
Discovery is more than just one of the greatest albums ever made. It's an ode to music, to the past, and to an optimistic vision of a musical universe far beyond our comprehension. Daft Punk may have come to their natural end this year, but with Discovery they gave the world something more than any listener could ever ask for. It's an invitation to create, to dance, and to re-discover the steps taken by musicians before you; understanding your place in a collective tapestry of songs and song-writers, all connected by an impulse to invent. It is here to discover, and it is here to be discovered again.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and co-edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
This article was edited by Fin Cousins, a postgraduate literature student studying at Kings College London. He loves sport, music and writing and he is still waiting for Love Island to accept his application. He also made our logo.
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