Human After All, Daft Punk’s third studio album, was the anti-Discovery: dark where Discovery was light, crude where Discovery was sophisticated, and hated where Discovery was loved. In the Daft Punk discography, Homework could be Discovery’s little brother – recognisably of the same stock but notably less developed; and Daft Club was Discovery’s alternate reality. But Human After All is Discovery’s evil twin: the two albums inextricably linked but utterly opposed in character.
Discovery – and the Alive 2006/7 tour that followed it – were moments of re-birth, when Daft Punk sloughed off old preconceptions to come back with something brilliant and new. Human After All, coming in between them, was more like a bad illness, a sudden, nasty shock to the system that forced the band to re-evaluate. Nobody really liked Human After All at the time. But looking back on it now, it seems a necessary move, a purge that enabled Daft Punk to go on, as well as the darkness that allowed Discovery’s light to shine that much brighter.
Human After All was how it was because of Discovery. In some ways – notably its use of guitars – Human After All fed off the lessons Daft Punk had learned with Discovery. In others, it was like an allergic reaction to Discovery and all that the album represented. So brilliant was Discovery that some people saw it as the band’s undoing, a vast, impeccable peak they could never hope to return to.
On a practical level, too, Human After All seemed like a reaction to the band’s struggles with Discovery. Daft Punk spent two and a half years making their second album – maybe more – and its gestation doesn’t seem to have been easy, with the duo moving away from an initial direction that suggested straight-up house music after recording a few songs.
Eric Chédeville, who worked with Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo in Le Knight Club, says that Thomas Bangalter worked particularly hard on Discovery’s production and was “really tired” by the end of the process. Human After All would be the counterpoint to this extended incubation – an album recorded and mixed in six weeks then thrown out into the world to sink or swim. (The actual recording process for Human After All was said to be two weeks, with four weeks of mixing.)
Thomas Bangalter explained to Time magazine that, after making Discovery “with a lot of different drum machines and synthesisers and this idea of an unlimited amount of time to experiment… we really liked the idea of setting a new kind of parameter for us, which was a limited time with a limited kit. Two drum machines and two guitars and one vocoder and one eight-track machine. We were interested in the roughness somehow and the contrast it provided.”
The contrast between the two albums is very evident. Discovery sounds like it was recorded at infinite leisure, stitched together out of the finest materials like some kind of imperial quilt. Human After All, on the other hand, has a distinctly unfinished air, as if jammed together with rusty nails in the pouring rain. On Discovery, different musical sections flow into each other. On Human After All, sounds play for a bit, then just stop, as if they don’t have anywhere else to go and didn’t enjoy the journey much anyway.
You can hear this in Human After All’s rather crude use of sampling. On Discovery, Daft Punk employed samples as a kind of spice: important to their music but rarely overbearing and always cleverly used to add flavour. The samples on Discovery are typically chopped up into little pieces, fed through various filters and effects and re-purposed. Human After All uses only one sample, but it is so rudimentary that it marks a rare moment in Daft Punk’s recorded history when you wonder if the commentators who decry sampling as simple sonic robbery might actually have a point.
Robot Rock was the lead single from Human After All, released one month after its parent album to a distinctly mixed reception. (I like the song; Pitchfork called it “a poor man’s Aerodynamic”, while Stylus claimed that it “does nothing, means nothing and goes nowhere for an unconscionably long time”). Robot Rock features three samples from Release The Beast, a 1980 song by US funk-rock band Breakwater. Of these, two are relatively brief – one drum fill and one guitar stab. But it is the third that dominates the song: Daft Punk lift two bars of Release The Beast, which they loop to create the musical backing for large parts of Robot Rock.
It’s far from a subtle use: large sections of Robot Rock are essentially made up of this sample, guitar, drums, synth squiggle and all, with Daft Punk adding the song’s robotic, two-word vocal: “rock/robot rock”. Conveniently, if you want to know what Robot Rock sounds like without this two-bar sample, you can: Daft Punk’s own Maximum Overdrive mix of Robot Rock, which was released on the Robot Rock single, dispenses with the long sample, taking with it most of the song’s charm and listenability, to leave something that sounds like Spacemen 3’s maddeningly repetitive drone-rock classic Revolution fed through the robot mangle.
Robot Rock is perhaps the perfect example of how Human After All can come across as a poor relation to – or even perversion of – Discovery. Talking to Q magazine, Thomas Bangalter called the song “a tribute to the power of heavy rock chords”, an idea that is close enough to Discovery’s reinterpretation of rock’s musical tropes. But Robot Rock lacks the subtleness and finesse of Discovery songs like Aerodynamic, making it a poor reflection of that album’s considerable charms, like Discovery viewed through an old, corroded mirror that is half covered in grot.
In Anthem magazine, Thomas Bangalter compared the use of a sample on Robot Rock to his work on Roulé records. “On my label, we’ve been doing records that are nine minutes with only [a single] one-second loop, with even less foundation than there is on Robot Rock,” he said. “It’s always been a way to reinterpret things – sometimes it’s using [an] element from the past, or sometimes recreating them and fooling the eyes or the ears, which is just a fun thing to do.”
He doesn’t mention it by name, but Bangalter is presumably referring to his work with DJ Falcon as Together, a project that took dance minimalism to extreme levels. Together made some genuinely beautiful music. But their final single, So Much Love To Give, came out in 2002, some three years before Human After All. And at the time it felt like the Together project had reached its peak, with the extreme, dazzling minimalism of their swan song leaving little room to manoeuvre. It is hard to see any kind of progress from Together to Robot Rockso, at best, Daft Punk’s extreme use of sampling is a call back to what Bangalter was doing three years previously, a far cry from Discovery’s leap into the future.
This crudeness extends to many of the sounds used on Human After All. Speaking to Time, Bangalter said that the group’s third album is related to Discovery in that it also speaks about “the dance between humanity and technology”. Perhaps more tellingly, he said that Human After All has “some kind of mechanical quality”, a remark that explains a lot of the album’s uglier flaws.
Human After All is mechanical but not in the sense of an intricate clockwork motor or well-tuned sports car. Human After All is like the grinding of rusty gears or the troubling screech of industrial machinery that once inspired Black Sabbath. In Discovery, the robots might have powered down. On Human After All it sounds like they are being prepared for their own industrial grave, the album marked by a relentless mechanical howl.
At times, this pained repetition makes Human After All almost unlistenable. Steam Machine and The Brainwasher are particularly punishing, like twin engines of damnation. While Discovery was full of brilliantly interesting noises and moving parts, these songs consist of little more than a distorted synth riff apiece, an uninspired vocal and a juddering drum machine rhythm.
There is a kind of rudimentary aggression to these songs that may well be intentional but doesn’t make for a rewarding listening experience. Discovery made the listener want to run into the street and declare their love for humanity; The Brainwasher makes you want to lower the volume and crawl under a blanket. Destruction can be an energetic force. But Steam Machine and The Brainwasher seems to have a kind of malevolent fatigue as if they are rotting from the inside.
Steam Machine and The Brainwasher illustrate the deep thread of minimalism that runs through Human After All, just four years after Discovery helped to introduce a new strain of digital maximalism to the world. Discovery, at its non-Romanthony core, burst with ideas and creative left turns: plans were packed on top of propositions, which sat astride schemes and projects. You never knew where a song like Aerodynamic would end up. But you know precisely where a song like Steam Machine will end because it won’t be far from the beginning. Repetition can be invigorating. But the effect on Human After All is frequently deadening, the listener’s senses slowly shutting down in a kind of survival instinct.
Human After All’s lyrics, too, are shot through with a kind of will-this-do minimalism. Discovery had songs, with intros, verses and choruses – you could, at a push, play Digital Love or Something About You on the piano. And if the lyrics weren’t always outstanding, they generally made a point or communicated an emotion.
The lyrics on Human After All, by contrast, seem lazy, like a placeholder that the band are waiting for someone else to come along and replace. Most songs simply repeat one line – or even one word – relentlessly until they become drained of meaning, with Technologic’s digital spiel a winning exception. There are no guest vocalists on Human After All (although improbable rumours suggest that George Michael was approached), compared to Discovery’s wonderful range of voices, which only serves to reinforce this monotony.