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M83 + School of Seven Bells

(17 Nov 2008: Pearl Street — Northampton, MA)

The shoegazer sound, radical as it may have been in the late 1980s, has become a staple element in many different kinds of musical acts lately, from earsplitting improvised guitar noise to pounding, techno-beat drones to only slightly distorted pop. This evening’s bill showcases two sheets-of-sound adapters—the French M83 giving it a synthy, motorik dance spin, and Brooklyn’s School of Seven Bells splicing in a sugary, tightly harmonized sort of pop. 

As School of Seven Bells makes last minute adjustments to guitars, keyboards, beer bottles, and speaker wires, My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow” comes on the stereo system. It’s a brave move, setting an almost impossible standard to anyone with a sense of history. The crowd, though, looks to be short on history… very young, very social, and clearly excited about M83. 

But first School of Seven Bells, a relatively new band formed by Ben Curtis (ex- of Secret Machines) and Claudia and Alejandra Deheza of On! Air! Library! The Dehezas are twins, one on keyboards, the other on guitar, their two voices high and nearly identical in timbre, allowing for unusually tight harmonies in which both parts of the chord are made of the same stuff.  The main thing about School of Seven Bells, in fact, is the contrast between these very accessible pop vocals and a jagged, aggressive guitar sound courtesy of Curtis, the skinny guy with the pedals. 

The band begins with “Wired For Light”, Curtis’ staccato, space-journeying guitar traveling through an aurora borealis of synth washes. That guitar is heavily processed, delay pedal I think, which Curtis rocks back and forth with his foot. It’s this combination of angularity and lushness, of strident, post-punk slash and pop melody that makes the music interesting. There’s no drummer, but lots of rhythm. A big booming bass drum pounds your innards from the sound system. A robot-cracking snare ruptures the off beats. 

The sound, though, is a little muddy. You hear the two women singing as pure tone, with only stray words slipping through as meaning. They play tag with large hoary musical riffs, now evoking the Cocteau Twins, now My Bloody Valentine, now Lush… but never quite as bracing or beautiful as any of these bands.

M83 is next, Anthony Gonzalez prowling the stage in a hoodie, as his traveling band—singer and keyboardist Morgan Kibby, guitar and bass player Pierre-Marie Maulini, and drummer Loic Maurin—complete their preparation. Maurin is banished behind plexiglass, Kibby sits directly across from Gonzales with a stack of computers, amps, and keyboards between them, and Maulini prowls the far right side of the stage. Then Gonzales places hands on his keyboards, and breathes deep, and we begin.

The set starts with “Run Into Flowers” from the breakthrough album Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, a pounding, bass-throbbing foundation swamped by lush waves of synthesizer. The next hour or so is mostly a romp through M83’s Saturday = Youth, with the crowd responding best to recent hits like “Kim & Jessie”, “Graveyard Girl”, and finally, “Couleurs”.  “Kim & Jessie”, in particular, sets off a wave of recognition, heads bobbing to its clanking beat, as the synthesizer sound swirls Tangerine Dream style. Yet there is also time for the dreamy wordless sounds of “Moon Child”, the anthemic glories of “Don’t Save Us from the Flames”, and the big cymbal crashing, drum rolling drama of “Teen Angst” from From Before the Dawn Heals Us.

What’s startling about M83, though, is how live their show is, despite occasional bouts or recorded poetry or samples. Drummer Maurin is in the plastic cage because he’s so powerful—sticks high over his shoulders as he whacks out the hard, athletic foundations of narcotizing songs. Both Maulini and Gonzales take turns playing sweaty, repetitively strummed guitar lines, stalking the stage as they crank out the rhythms. And when Gonzales and Kibby sing together, they share a palpable sense of communion, bobbing their heads in unison over piles of equipment, moving, almost writhing, to a powerful beat while spinning out ethereal webs of melody. 

The encore is particularly visceral, a long, krautrocking jam, where everybody in the band—and most of the audience—is locked in a trance-like, pounding rhythm. Heads nod, arms flail, waists bend, cymbals crash, as the beat pummels on not for hours but for minutes that stretch taffy-like in the heat. For once, the shoegazing blur, the synthy plasticity subsides and you see the hard techno rhythms that underlie M83’s soft focus visions. It’s a body-shocking finale to a mostly lulling, dream-inducing evening.

M83 - Graveyard Girl
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