Former Daft Punk member Thomas Bangalter has released his first solo album – and it’s quite the musical pivot. We give our verdict…
When you think of now-defunct French electro pioneers Daft Punk, chances are that the words ‘opera’, ‘classic music’ or ‘ballet’ don’t feature too high on your list.
But choreographer Angelin Preljocaj saw things differently and commissioned Thomas Bangalter, one half of the hugely influential group formed with Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, to compose for a symphony orchestra.
The end result is 'Mythologies', Bangalter’s first solo release since Daft Punk announced they would be breaking up in February 2021 after a groundbreaking 28-year run. (Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to remove your masks during a global pandemic?)
That brilliantly enigmatic video of the break-up shows a self-destruction, and in the case of 'Mythologies', it now feels rather apt. Gone are the electronic dance tracks that irrevocably changed the sound of modern pop. They blew up and are replaced by a sprawling 90-minute composition that represents quite the whiplash-inducing musical pivot.
The album was first heard when the eponymous ballet premiered last summer, a collaboration between Ballet Preljocaj and the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, which performed Bangalter’s score under the direction of Romain Dumas.
Like the ballet, Bangalter’s ‘Mythologies’ is an exploration of contemporary rituals, as well as the way founding myths shape collective imagination. The concept focuses on storytelling and how ancient folklore and myths – from Icarus to Aphrodite, the Amazons and the Gemini (Castor and Pollux) – have influenced conflict and even gender identity.
Lofty and hefty is the name of the game, and this slightly scattershot concept is mirrored in the 23 instrumental tracks, whose melodies feel very distinct from one another and often work better apart rather than combined. While a patchwork approach often leads to compositions feeling clumsily sewn together, it strangely works in 'Mythologies', because the broader concept lends itself to a vignette approach.
The score ends up sounding like the Baroque lovechild of Vivaldi and Philip Glass, and it’s… Well, it’s sublime.
Throughout, you can hear echoes of the Venetian master and American minimalism, as well as touchstones like Bach and Debussy. And in this sense, Bangalter’s approach to melodies and influences isn’t that dissimilar to sampling — an art Daft Punk mastered, to say the least.
From the bombastic horns of ‘Thalestris’, the distressingly ominous ‘L’Arrivée d’Alexandre’ or the epic ‘Le Minotaure’ – which appropriately sounds like a surly beast is gradually advancing towards you with murderous intent in its eyes, before letting way to some gorgeous lighter strings in its second half – there is an eerily cinematic effect at play. Exquisitely played by the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, the compositions are evocative and powerful, and never devoid of emotion. Standouts include the energetic dancing strings of ‘Les Amazones’ and the sorrowful ‘L’Accouchement’ and its sublime its crescendo; which could have been right at home in a Spielberg joint - and don’t pretend you didn’t hear a John Williams-style theme at the three-and-a-half-minute mark.
Granted, there is a niggling sense that 'Mythologies' may lack something – a unique take on the Baroque movement that may have led many to nostalgically hope that some of Daft Punk could have crept in there to give this 19th century ballet score an extra kick.
That said, the absence of any familiar Punk touchstones just shows an artist who has orchestrated his own unique and ambitious pivot. And had this album not had the ‘Former Daft Punk member’ stamp on it, many would be trumpeting it unreservedly as a minor masterpiece that may not be up there alongside other popular musicians going classical like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood ('There Will Be Blood', 'Phantom Thread') for example, but still deserves admiration aplenty.
As for those who balk at the mere mention of classical music and who can’t imagine a musical landscape without Daft Punk solo members continuing their electro-dance antics, there’s always the recently announced 10th anniversary expanded edition of the band’s final album ‘Random Access Memories’, which comes out next month (12 May). However, for those adventurous enough to not get all hot under the collar about unheard demos and outtakes, give 'Mythologies' a go. Remember that Daft Punk’s 2013 lush and opulent disco odyssey was all about borrowing R&B and soft rock from the past. Bangalter has just gone further back in time, and he's clearly having a blast.
After all, in a recent NY Times interview, he stated that his priorities in 2023 “are the side of the humans, not the machines,” adding that he has “absolutely no desire or intentions to be a robot in 2023.”
So, he’s human after all. Maybe that robot helmet needed to go up in smoke.
'Mythologies' is out now on Erato / Warner Classics.