As members of Radiohead and Sigur Ros make appearances in the orchestra pits of New York and London, it’s becoming impossible to differentiate between classical and rock concerts. Both now feature a steady diet of 20-minute pieces replete with atmospheric swells and instrumental cacophony. Hell, just because there are twenty musicians on stage doesn’t mean it’s an orchestra; it could be the Polyphonic Spree. The only reliable test left is also a test of endurance. If you’re forced to stand, then you know for certain that you still rock.
No matter how refined and intellectualized modern rock might become the message from your tired soles is that we’re all still groundlings. Our tastes might have risen above Chuck Berry chord progressions but they’re still below Brahms. Rock is the blockbuster horror flick while classical is the foreign art film.
M83 is the Alfred Hitchcock of the equation, one of the few exceptions to the rule. And the wide-screen vision of sole composer and fulltime member Anthony Gonzalez could just as easily settle into Lincoln Theater as he could in the casual slumminess of the Bowery Ballroom.
Gonzalez has in the past chosen to appear alone, relying on samples and programmed backing tracks. On this tour, he brought with him a trio of solid musicians who played with all the commitment of full-fledge members. They filled out not just the sound but also M83’s presence on stage. Under the flashing strobes and police-siren blues and reds of the spotlights, the four men gave the misleading impression that they were just your average rock band.
These compositions are too big for a quartet however, and so a mix of voices, guitars, and synth effects floated from the speakers. A few layered keyboard samples hardly merit notice, but the disembodied voices of missing singers could be a bit disconcerting. Gonzalez sang occasionally, but some of the most vital parts came straight from the recording. It was as if you had gone to see Van Halen and Eddie brought along a recording of David Lee Roth instead of the genuine Diamond. The show might be less annoying but it wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling.
The expansive scope of M83’s atmospheric instrumentals is probably best served on record, when the visuals are left to your imagination. Gonzalez could make a healthy livelihood composing for soundtracks. His music can often be as thrilling as any of the Gyorergi Ligeti that Kubrick used. Sitting home alone and listening to “Car Chase Terror”, the best song from Before the Dawn Heals Us, I get chills from the breathless female voice. The menacing, racing pulse of the synthesizers could have come from any classic, B-list horror movie. I can picture the crickets, the cars passing the abandoned rest stop where the two doomed women await their fate as the serial killer lurks beyond the pools of lamplight.
Unfortunately, seeing this song performed live is like turning on the lights and realizing the man in the corner of your bedroom is an old coat. Those women are men. That killer, a sampler. The ability to sit back and create your own vision of the song is replaced by watching four young musicians demonstrate their earnest virtuosity.
M83’s music is more than just rock, and it calls for more than just a traditional rock performance. This live show is crying out for a screen to drop from the ballroom rafters and a film reel start rolling, projecting a film to match M83’s bombastic, Wagnerian theatrics. Something with explosions. And breathless women. And serial killers. After all, we are only groundlings.