What are we doing here? Honestly, what are we doing with this “drumless” edition of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories? What possible lessons can we learn from 2023’s second re-edition of Daft Punk’s third-best album, in which every sonic detail is the same, other than the absence of drums? Why on earth did Daft Punk, one of the savviest musical duos in modern memory, choose to release a largely superfluous album, when they could have simply ridden the residual good vibes of RAM’s 10th anniversary reissue from earlier this year? Why would anyone choose to listen to Daft Punk’s meticulously crafted fourth studio album with the work of two of the world’s best session drummers wiped from the surface?
In the absence of an official explanation, speculation has thrived. Some fans claim that RAM Drumless is intended for DJs and producers who want to create their own RAM mixes and bootlegs, a logical enough idea that doesn’t account for the pricey Drumless merch or the major-label system and its outright revulsion for copyright-busting fan-made remixes. The big news is that Random Access Memories (Drumless Edition) really is just that: Random Access Memories with the drums removed. There’s no slinky disco hi-hat on “Get Lucky,” no explosive snare fills on “Contact,” no gentle cymbal taps on “Within,” not even a click track on “Giorgio by Moroder.” If this were another group you’d suspect a radical art prank, a sardonic comment, maybe, on the importance of drums to the house and techno music with which Daft Punk made their name. But Daft Punk don’t seem the type.
Stripping the glossy RAM productions of their percussion does give other musical elements room to breathe—the bass, for example, feels a lot more prominent on “Giorgio by Moroder,” and you can really pick out how Todd Edwards’ brilliant microsample patchwork on “Fragments of Time” relates to the song’s bass and guitar lines. My own theory around Random Access Memories is that Daft Punk’s fourth album is, in effect, two records: a disco/soft rock/house album that houses the radio hits and a much more interesting, proggy, swirly record that lies alongside. By and large, the disco tunes—“Get Lucky,” “Lose Yourself to Dance,” “Instant Crush”—sound bereft of life in their Drumless versions, a low-carb diet beer watered down within an inch of its life. But the prog-leaning songs—“Within,” “Beyond,” “Motherboard,” etc.—fare a lot better.
At times the transformation is revelatory. “Beyond” and “Motherboard,” in particular, feel the breath of new light on RAM Drumless. Shorn of their percussive shuffle, the two songs’ Drumless versions allow the astral swoon of Greg Leisz’s pedal steel guitar to drift to the surface, creating a blissed-out ambient country music to rival The KLF’s classic Chill Out (or, indeed, RAM’s Japanese bonus track “Horizon”), while the subtle orchestral touches in both songs feel flush with vivid color. The cat’s cradle cobweb of acoustic guitar and increasingly elastic one-note bassline that briefly surface in “Motherboard (Drumless Version)” are enough to make this the definitive version of the song, even if it took a decade to get there.
There are exceptions to the disco/prog rule of thumb. The sprawling “Touch” should thrive when detached from percussion and allowed to dissipate. But removing the drums from the song’s upbeat middle section robs “Touch” of its shape-shifting, sun-blessed heterogeneity, making it a one-paced beast. On the other hand, Panda Bear collaboration “Doin’ It Right,” an electro-pop number that fit awkwardly on the original Random Access Memories, finds its home as a minimal, hypnotic pop duet on RAM Drumless, driven by the textual interplay between Daft Punk’s robotic backing vocal and Noah Lennox’s childlike (and largely effect-free) voice.
A drum-free album is really pushing the limits in a music business that has never been shy about overselling fans on albums they already own. At its worst, Random Access Memories (Drumless Edition) feels like a concept album so theoretically pure that it didn’t need to exist, a joke without a punchline. But brief moments of drumless enlightenment and acoustic revelation are just about enough to rescue it from the vast cosmic bin of pointlessness. Neither victory lap nor walk of shame, RAM Drumless is a curious, unfulfilling end to the RAM saga. And while a Drumless Version of RAM 10th-anniversary bonus track “Infinity Repeating” would be an intriguing prospect, now, surely, is the time to let Daft Punk’s fourth studio album take a well-earned rest.
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