Twenty years on from the release of Daft Punk’s sophomore LP that would accelerate their rise to global stardom, the celebrations of this classic album have been overshadowed by the announcement that Daft Punk are over. While the duo haven’t released any new music together since a pair of collaborations with The Weeknd in 2016 led them to their only US number 1 chart-topper, the split still took many by surprise. Here we wind the clock back to the late 1990s to look at how ‘Discovery’ came to be and why, after its release at the dawn of the new century, we’re still talking about it after two decades.
The Daft Punk story begins in the early to mid-90s as an Indie band derided as sounding like “a daft punky thrash”. As that band fell apart, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo began making more electronic sounds while DJing at festivals and shows through-out Europe. The long and short of the story see’s an early demo pass through the hands of DJ Stuart McMillan leading to their first singles being pressed by Soma Quality Recordings, the pioneering Glasgow-based label McMIllan helped form. Soon signed to Virgin after a bidding-war, the duo’s debut ‘Homework’ has passed into the canon of classic House albums with its mix of Big-Beat and Funk grooves. Yet, by the time ‘Discovery’ dropped in February 2001 the musical landscape had changed significantly in just a few years.
While ‘Homework’ had been met with a burgeoning House music scene, ‘Discovery’ entered the fray with the Chemical Brothers regular features in the Top Ten singles charts, Moby tracks backing every commercial on TV, and Radiohead taking a hard leftfield turn by dropping ‘Kid A’ and turning all the Indie kids onto Aphex Twin. Glossy, high production electronic music was fully mainstream and needn’t ever even glance at a dancefloor to achieve success. ‘Discovery’ capitalised on this moment, legitimate dancefloor influences and turning them into a theatrical electronic opera primed for the singles and the album charts.
Opening with what has become an instantly recognisable staggered, staccato-ish riff, ‘Discovery’ kicks off with ‘One More Time’, a celebration of dancing and music and life that dominated dancefloors at the time with its spiraling, never ending verse from Romanthony as synths fire off neon pulses to introduce us to the new millennium version of Daft Punk. By this time, of course, the duo had ditched their habit of granting interviews to music journalists, begun obfuscating themselves behind shiny metallic helmets, and started to craft the robotic narrative that would dominate their style and music for the next two decades.
That ‘One More Time’ opened this chapter is fitting; a truly simple love song for the dancefloor it is the most essentialist of Daft Punk themes, while the inclusion of House seer Romanthony’s heavily processed vocals shows the deep affection and respect Daft Punk always showed for the pioneers and contemporaries that influenced their sound. At its core it is a warm hearted and respectful paean to a love of music, a theme well-trod across genres. Yet, here it was new and vital and immediate and it captured imaginations and bodies and created something novel that would only be furthered over the next thirteen tracks.
From there, ‘Discovery’ continues at a quick pace, introducing tracks with memorable intros left and right while introducing riffs, choruses and breakdowns that over the years have developed into earworms and almost forgotten flashback moments for anyone who spent time with this record back at its release. When so many of the tracks here became singles, six in total got full official releases, its tricky to separate the album from the individual moments, particularly in the first half.
That said, it’s also not all wall-to-wall energy. Just beyond the midway point, ‘Something About Us’ is surprisingly soulful, chill, and human, even with the filtered and processed robot vocals. It’s the closest Daft Punk got to their French brethren Air who had ‘Moon Safari’ under their belts and would drop ’10,000 Hz Legend’ within months of ‘Discovery’s’ release.
The overall vibe of ‘Discovery’ is a glassy cool that manages to stay funky rather than slide out into becoming shrill. It no doubt helped usher in renewed interest in Italo Disco in the years after its release, while the duo would further their sound and go on to influence everyone from Deadmau5 to Pharrell Williams. Those influences would take time to play out, however. At the time, there was one clear stylistic element that captured attention and greatly divided option.
Starting with the vocals on ‘One More Time’ the album will be widely remembered as ushering in a new era of vocoder and extreme auto-tune treatments of vocals. Dismissed prior to ‘Discovery’ as lazy or a fad, the robotic duo crafted a new space for the technology that allowed it to appear innovative or at worst knowingly cool-kitsch rather than downright distasteful. While the duo would go on to place the effects at the very centre of their aesthetic on ‘Human After All’, many forget that there are less treated, more natural voices alongside the pitch-shifted, clipped and processed robot soundbites on ‘Discovery’.
The most obvious pair come in the shape of the final two tracks. Closer ‘Too Long’ takes it’s ten-minute run time as a gag and runs on that basis, producing a last minute gift for DJs and remixers with slow builds, careful separation and the kind of careful slow build that demands engagement from moving bodies and allows the less engaged disk-spinner time to nip out and grab a drink.
More notable on an album of fourteen tracks and an hour-long runtime is that the second to last track is also the finest cut. ‘Face To Face’ takes the robust House kick, the repetitive lyrical loops that suck you in, the guitar riffs, and a genuinely soulful vocal take and transforms them into the perfect Dance Pop song. As a collaboration with Todd Edwards, whose vocals it employs, the track was the only single not to break the UK charts, perhaps due to its heavier dancefloor focus. It’s certainly not keeping with the overall vibe of the rest of the album and yet it’s the perfect palette cleanser after what has thus far been dramatic, saccharine ride through a new era of robot-friendly dance music. In many ways, ‘Face To Face’ epitomises what is special about ‘Discovery’; while there are clearly singles that became massive hits, the accompanying tracks each elevated each other to new heights thanks to a sense of cohesion and exemplary programming that really does make ‘Discovery’ a journey and at times an aural adventure.
By pushing the most dramatically Pop tracks with the thickest layers of glassy synths and the most heavily processed vocals to the front of the album, Daft Punk set expectations from the start. Yet, as ‘Discovery’ progresses the elements that remain from ‘Homework’ become clearer, as if one is strapped to a rocket and see’s only fire and blurred motion until high enough through the atmosphere as to be able to look back and see the Earth in its full glory for the first time. With twenty years of hindsight, ‘Discovery’ is the classic Daft Punk album thanks to the light it shines not only on where they would go and who they would influence, but on where they’d been and who they were in that moment.