Have you ever heard of “The Faceless Duo?” Have you ever seen a duo wearing a flashing helmet resembling an electric pressure cooker? One wears a flat-eyed helmet and the other wears a large-eyed helmet. Two French men wearing very subtly different helmets, they are “Daft Punk.” The duo who even covers their faces with black eco bags or foil if there’s no helmet produces a powerful electronic sound ringing an ear. Daft Punk has been recognized as maestro of electronica who brought it from the shade to the light. The Argus explores the world of electronica through the music of Daft Punk.
Who is Daft Punk?
Daft Punk is a French electronic music duo consisting of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter. Debuting in 1997 with their first album [Homework] and releasing three mega hits such as [Discovery] (2001), [Alive] (2007), and [Random Access Memory] (2013), they are now recognized as the most influential artists of electronica. The representative songs of Daft Punk include “One More Time,” “Get Lucky,” “Da Funk,” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” They have also won seven Grammy Awards, including the Album of the Year award, which recognizes outstanding performances in the music industry at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
*Discography Full-length album
○ Homework (1997. 01. 07) Tracks: Da Funk, Around the World …
○ Discovery (2001. 02. 26) Tracks: One More Time, Harder Better Faster Stronger, Digital Love …
○ Human After All (2005. 03. 14) Tracks: Human After All, Rock Rock…
○ Random Access Memories (2013. 05. 17) Tracks: Give Life Back to Music, Touch, Instant Crush, Get Lucky…
Electronica, which has been drawing attention on Billboard charts along with rock, country, R&B, and hip-hop in the 21st century, is one big genre encompassing various genres of electronic music. Electronica emphasizes rhythm and beat rather than melodies such that the notes connect sequentially while rising and falling with features in which a certain pattern is repeated with subtle changes. Electronica musicians are leading the overall digitalization of pop music on the back of technological advances. The digitalization of music is achieved by converting all kinds of sounds and adding rhythms and beats through high-tech devices.
Of the various high-tech devices underlying electronica, four that are representative are synthesizers, drum machines, samplers and MIDI. The synthesizer uses electrical signals to mimic the sounds of instruments or synthesize different tones to create new sounds, so it can create music without it actually being performed. The drum machine is a type of electronic instrument that produces the rhythm of percussion through electrical devices, and the sampler digitizes notes based on various sound recordings and converts them back into sound signals. This allows musicians to use the original sound source without recording it with musical instruments such as guitars and bass. MIDI is an abbreviation for “musical instrument digital interface,” and it allows users to connect electronic instruments and computers. It programs numerous instruments and digitizes data of sound height, length, and volume to produce various tones.
Electronica is divided into subgenres including house, techno, trance, and drum&bass. House, which started in the 1980s, consists of pieces in 4/4 beats created by a sampler and a drum machine. Techno, located at the center of popular music in the 1990s, consists mostly of 4/4 beats around mechanical sounds designed using synthesizers. Drum&bass features fast and complex rhythms, while trance has a relatively slow rhythm on the synthesizer.
Techno and house, two of the most typical kinds of electronica, can be found on the first album of Daft Punk, [Homework], released in 1997. Instead of playing instruments, [Homework]’s main focus is to make music with sound-recorded software and repeat it by splitting it into small pieces. The songs on the album have control over melodies and lyrics and mainly consist of a uniform sound that gives them a robotic feel. The album’s signature song, “Da Funk,” has only a 4/4 beat, with no lyrics for five minutes and 29 seconds. Another hit song, “Around the world,” repeats its title for seven minutes and nine seconds in a small voice with a strong beat.
Electronica also creates change in music in the form of a crossover that fuses with other music genres while maintaining the basic aspect. Since the 2000s, it has been trying to join other genres such as rock, hip-hop, blues, and disco, raising its popularity. As a case in point, Daft Punk’s second album [Discovery], released in 2001, contains disco, a popular music genre that gained worldwide popularity in the late 1970s. “Discovery,” the title of the album, can also confirm the intention of Daft Punk, which has the double meaning of Disco+Very. This indicates Daft Punk’s intention to discover a new trend: the fusion of house and disco, which is popular and less mechanical.
[Discovery]’s hit song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” is also electro-synthetic music reinterpreted with disco. The song especially uses the synth pop-based disco to infuse a retro feel into electronic music. Synth pop, a style of pop music that has been popular around the world since the late 1970s and 1980s, presents a grooved and funky pop melody. The song lasts nearly four minutes with only 20 words, but here is why it does not feel boring. While repeatedly using the same words, it is equipped with fast and light melodies of disco based on 4/4 beat, and a rich and familiar melody of synth pop, which shows a process that is completely free of boredom.
In contrast, tracks from [Discovery], including “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and “One More Time,” contain odd vocals that are encoded, unlike previous albums that have no lyrics at all. Vocoder, used on this album, is an effector that modulates a person’s voice with a keyboard output, and is an experimental instrument of electronica. The vocoder, an abbreviation of “voice coder,” analyzes the frequency of the person’s voice and instrument sound at the same time and transforms the component of the voice close to that of the instrument. By this principle, the voice of a person modulated to the tone and pitch of an instrument has an effect that sounds mechanical, maintaining the future-oriented feel of electronica.
Electronica has traditionally only used electronic sounds, but it has recently attempted to merge with a real session based on a real instrument playing in the arrangement. This shows the future of electronica; that is, the future of the digital world that actively utilizes analog. Typically, [Random Access Memory], released in 2013 by Daft Punk, confirms the potential of a real session in the world of electronic sound. While the genres of previous albums are house and disco focused on electronic sounds, this album has a big difference in that most tracks emphasize the sound recorded on the actual instrument.
When [Random Access Memory] was being produced, Daft Punk recruited session musicians to play live instruments, unlike on previous albums. Session musicians refer to musical instrument players or vocalists who assist live performances or record sessions with other musicians. This is to add real sessions, including guitar, instead of the technical electronic sound that has frequently seen in previous works. Strong guitar melodies and bass are emphasized in “Get Lucky” and “Give Life to Music” with legendary U.S. guitarist Nile Rogers, while “Within” and “Touch” feature piano sound which had never appeared before as a solo and string instruments with orchestras.
In addition, actual vocals, not vocoder, are added in collaboration with various vocalists. It adds humanity to the robotic sound that has been the hallmark of electronica. In “Get Lucky,” the vocal of renowned American vocalist Pharrell Williams stands out, and in “Instant Crush,” Julian Fernando Casablancas participates as a vocalist. Of course, electronic sounds are not entirely excluded. The electronic instruments used on the album are limited to the synthesizer and drum machine. The synthesizer is given little weight as the background music of tracks and the drum machine appears only in two of the 13 tracks, “Motherboard” and “Doin’ it Right.” This is to minimize electronic instruments and show a proper harmony between actual instruments and electronic sounds.
By Kim Min-ji Associate Editor of Culture Section