By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
Return of the Robots
Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin and Justice's automation for (moving) the people
In 2007, Daft Punk finally triumphed and entered into cultural ubiquity. On Halloween, their robot costumes were trainspotted as often as Amy Winehouse getups. They sold out U.S. sports arenas, they got sampled by Kanye (while Akon and T-Pain bit their vocoders for Top 10 residencies), they blanketed glossy mags, and they, uh . . . released a live album.
Yet the revolution started nearly a year before, when Daft Punk headlined Coachella in 2006. Mechanized chants of "HUMAN" and "ROBOT" opened that set before blowing the simple circuitry of hundreds of thousands of human minds with "Robot Rock" and a light show that beggared belief. Offering a visual onslaught at once hivemind-esque and reminiscent of an alien discotheque—while also flashing an appreciation for Egyptology and the pyramids—the robots that were Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter began their world domination out in the desert. That Coachella performance was so epochal as to render the fact that they would coast on the fumes of their most lackluster album, Human After All, for another two years a moot point.
This year's Coachella lineup, while perhaps not deploying the pyramid power of Daft Punk, features a slew of electronic dance music that shows how—for generations now—robots have entertained humans.
Afrika Bambaataa relates an eye-opening story in David Toop's seminal book on hip-hop, Rap Attack, about when the four German automatons came to play New York's Ritz club: "Kraftwerk—I don't think they even knew how big they were among the black masses back in '77, when they came out with 'Trans-Europe Express.' Everybody just went crazy off that. They had four encores, and people would not let them leave."
Ever since they first took a spin out on the autobahn, Kraftwerk have been a massive force in popular music. And the more robotic and disengaged they became, the more profound their influence. Sure, they're the fathers of Daft Punk, but they're grandfathers to countless generations. In the '70s, David Bowie and Iggy Pop (and Lester Bangs) were fans of their clammy, plastic-skinned soul, while Kraftwerk's effect on B-boy culture is immeasurable. Even as they were phased out in the early '80s, their influence spread. What would pop-and-lock breakdance moves be without these showroom dummies? Where would electro or hip-hop be without those electronic drums and pocket calculators? Where would thousands of DJs be without the seminal "Trans-Europe Express," which even Grandmaster Flash calls the jump-off?
This marks the robots' second performance at Coachella.
In the '80s, robots gained ground in electro, freestyle, acid and other underground dance musics while also starring in such disparate movies as Short Circuit and Terminator, gave humanoid 'droids a bad name (never mind that said robot would one day govern California). It was only when the Aphex Twin model came onto the market in the early '90s that robots and electronic music seemed cuddly and crested again. Richard D. James (as Aphex Twin is also known) started with homemade circuits and analog circuitry, creating ambient works and albums of some of the most enchanting, hyperkinetic and futuristic electronic music of the epoch (see: I Care Because You Do, Hangable Auto Bulb and Selected Ambient Works 85-92).
James' visage bordered on Big Brother cult of personality. Through the '90s, he could be seen grinning that inhuman grin on everything from giant pink teddy bears ("Donkey Rhubarb") and wee ankle-biters (the "Come to Daddy" video) to bikini-bursting models with champagne ejaculating onto them ("Windowlicker"). And yet, at his most avant garde and ubiquitous, creating the most complex and astounding electronic music imaginable, Aphex Twin suffered power failure and shut down.
James has returned under such aliases as AFX, the Tuss and Analord, the output of which has been busy but mild, nowhere near his previous peaks. That said, Aphex Twin remains impish, and his stage show can include anything from dancing bears to deejaying sandpaper disks. Unlike that other late-'90s model of robot also on display this year at Coachella, Fatboy Slim, Aphex Twin is a true—albeit latent—genius.
Daft Punk continue to inspire A.I. obsessions not only here in the states, but also back in their country of origin, France. Ed Banger Records and its roster of DJs (Busy P, DJ Mehdi, Kavinsky, SebAstian, etc.) create scuzzy 4/4 bangers that emulate the duo's work to an alarming degree. So far, the most successful upgrading of the Daft Punk model remains Justice, a Parisian duo (Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay) who forgo the sleek metallic outer shells of their predecessors for something that seems, if not more human, then at least more scumbag. Dolled up as if for a cameo in Heavy Metal Parking Lot and playing behind a wall of (fake) Marshall stacks, Justice bang out heavy house cuts that prove them to be robots after all.
Aphex Twin performs April 25; Kraftwerk, April 26; Justice, April 27. Times and stages to be announced.