Last year was a big one for M83-mastermind Anthony Gonzalez. While he had certainly caught the eye (and ear) of music critics and shoegaze-aholics with his previous works, it’s safe to say Saturdays=Youth thrust him further into the indie-spotlight. Though he had dropped jaws with the spectacular Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts and other efforts, none of them were as poignant or focused as his latest. And singles like “Kim & Jessie” and “Graveyard Girl” further drove that point home. With cuts like that, Gonzalez had successfully proven he can create more than a brilliantly textured soundscape. These were perfectly structured songs that were both far-reaching and grounded, resulting in shoegaze-cum-‘80s-pop perfection. And, above all that, Saturdays=Youth displayed a progression both in style and songwriting.
It’s for all those reasons that it comes as a surprise that Mute decided to re-release Digital Shades: Vol. 1 now. Even though it is understood that this record represents the first of what should be a collective series of ambient works, it might fall on deaf ears without the proper marketing. Newer M83 fans will likely be confused by an album completely void of percussion and with brief instances of vocals. On the other hand, his seasoned listeners are sure to embrace this, an exercise in minimalism almost entirely comprised of synths, which evoke sounds ranging from UFO transmissions to church organs. So, as you can tell, this album is not for everyone. Also, it’s not at all indicative of what you would hear on a conventional M83 release. But, those thoughts aside, this first volume of Digital Shades is worth your time if you are looking for a twist on New Age or a new soundtrack to a rainy night or a mellow afternoon.
The 10-track, 35-minute album, which offers very little in the way of variation, is best summed up by its final and longest track, “The Highest Journey”. Although it differs from others by being piano-driven, the cut falls in line with the rest when those familiar synths soar into your ears. It might chug along for some listeners who aren’t fond of eight-minute songs, but it’s easily worth your time, especially when Gonzalez layers in choral vocals to build the track to even greater heights. Yet, it hits its peak when everything suddenly cuts at the end. It might seem odd that the finest point of the album is its conclusion, but Gonzalez pulls it off so well that it would be foolish to not recognize this wonderfully-executed sudden drop. Other tracks carrying the weight of “The Highest Journey” include “Coloring the Void” and “My Own Strange Path”. “Coloring the Void” might just be the most breathtaking piece on here solely based on the emotional build Gonzalez crafts with incoherent vocal loops and a deafening wall of sound. The aptly-titled “My Own Strange Path”, which equates to what sounds like an alien abduction, features what might be a muted guitar that adds a necessary sense of percussion. As bizarre as it might seem, it’s actually the strange amalgam of noise that makes the track stand out from the bunch.
Too often the songs on here lose their identity, which might not matter if you are using this as a means of relaxing. But as an album, the lack of variety and all-too-familiar tones take away from the listening experience. Moody tracks like the (obviously) beach-friendly “Waves, Waves, Waves” and the gloomy “Dancing Mountains” are intriguing on the first and second playthrough. As you continue playing them, though, they lose what substance they had. The same goes for the first and second parts of “Sister”, with the latter featuring laughably-childish and simple lyrics. Musically, they are solid enough to not be deemed weak or lackluster, but their droning repetition can grow tiresome. And it’s that feeling that makes it difficult to recommend this to anyone that is not an absolute M83 fiend. While it stands up as a nice collection instrumental works, it’s not one that will beg for repeated listens. But, in the end, this is an M83 record and, as expected, it’s still a fine one at that. Just don’t pop it in expecting the same type of rush achieved by his other works.