M83: M83 / Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts / Before the Dawn Heals Us

This re-release of M83's first three albums paint a fascinating story of the band's rise to masters of catharsis-oriented synth-pop.

When Anthony Gonzalez started out making music, he probably didn’t anticipate that he’d eventually be producing singles for the Killers, scoring Tom Cruise films, and getting Grammy nominations for his Smashing Pumpkins-inspired ambitious double-album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Instead, in those early days with musical collaborator Nicolas Fromageau, M83’s first real claim to fame was having one of their songs featured in the trailer to a Russian horror flick.

Oh, how times have changed.

M83’s first three albums – their eponymous 2001 effort, 2003’s Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, and 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us – showcased a man who never found a synth lick he didn’t like, often crafting elongated instrumental-pop epics that seemed to share the same aural DNA with the likes of the Cocteau Twins and middle-era Talk Talk, albeit filtered through a very accessible post-millennial aesthetic. These early songs had purpose and were laced with the kind of emotional manipulation that only the best kinds of film scores were capable of, which is why Dead Cities proved to be the time when M83 started showing up on many tastemaker’s radars. By the time Gonzalez embraced his inner-John Hughes on 2008’s excellent Saturdays = Youth, it was obvious that his particular brand anthemic-pop couldn’t be constrained to the indie blogosphere for too long, and by the time “Midnight City” dropped from 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Gonzalez wound up scoring his first-ever platinum-hit, M83 having finally arrived in the mainstream after over a decade of hard work.

Thus, with his brand as popular as ever, it makes sense for Mute Records to finally give his early albums a second go-round, those first three discs having been put out on the short-lived Parisian label Gooom Records and later re-released by Mute in 2005 just as Before the Dawn Heals Us wound up making its way onto a lot of prominent year-end critic polls. The great thing about M83 is that with their sophisticated and detailed production, this trilogy of early works doesn’t sound dated or tied down to any particular trend. They sound just as fresh now as they did upon first release, even if each album varies in overall cohesiveness.

In fact, while M83 features a lot of great compositional work from track-to-track, that lone debut is still very much the sound of a band finding its voice. While some individual numbers certainly do stand out (like the propulsive, stuttering dance track that is “Sitting”), epics like the closer “I’m Happy She Said” and the wavy-bed of electronics that is “Carresses” end up overstaying their welcome somewhat, because a grove, no matter how good it is, is simply hard to sustain for more than five minutes, especially given that some of this album’s synth washes used really feel Xeroxed over from Moby’s own “emotional” efforts from the same time period.

M83 does have some distinctive characteristics in that it often features very short dialogue snippets from films like Mark of the Vampire and Parix, Texas, and tracks like “Violet Tree” feature the kind of oscillating, clanging tones (and light electric guitar work) that make it sound custom-made for some tense movie scene (or perhaps the final level in an RPG). Take into account things like the strange drawn-out vocal mannerisms in “Kelly” that only turn into a real song at about the two-minute mark, and M83 really does feel like a playground for Gonzalez and Fromageau’s ideas, tossing all these somewhat disparate elements into the same neon pot just to see what will mix. Some songs leave stronger impressions than others, but as a debut album, M83 definitely points people to this band’s promise, but not their full potential.

It’s perhaps somewhat surprising then that for Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, the duo decided to significantly muddy-up their sound, going for more blown-out speaker effects and more pared-down arrangements, crafting a disc that feels like a bracing shot of clarity in comparison to their somewhat-meandering debut. “Unrecorded” goes through enough ups and down and ever-shifting sonic elements that one can’t help but be drawn in to its extremely potent mix of numerous synth melodies, all gradually layered on top of each other but never distracting from the moment at hand. The plain-spoken vocals on “Run Into Flowers” points the group towards more pop-minded ambitions, while the aggressive minor-key miracle that is “America” unveils a rawness that was previously unseen in M83’s giant wall of influences.

With reverent instrumentals like “In Church” and the shoegaze-indebeted “Noise”, it’s obvious that despite the more in-your-face aesthetic, Dead Cities still shows the duo finding power in the realm of the groove, playing their ideas to their logical conclusions but achieving this in a much more concise way than on M83, keeping all of their songs under five minutes save for the two closing epics. “0078h” feels like some never-before-used NIN demo in the best possible sense, while the six-minute sprawl of “Gone” serves as a fine example of the band’s long-standing catharsis fetish. Ultimately, Dead Cities feels like a quantum leap ahead of the considered noodling of the band’s debut, and even with a few undercooked instrumentals (“On a White Lake, Near a Green Mountain” immediately comes to mind), there’s very good reason why Dead Cities helped launch M83 to a bigger audience than ever before.

Yet perhaps what’s most fascinating about third album (and first without Fromageau) Before the Dawn Heals Us is that right there in that opening epic “Moonchild”, not a lot has changed aesthetically since Dead Cities. Instead, Gonzalez enhances the group’s existing sound with small but significant additions: actual vocal choirs, reverb-heavy synth drums, and an even more direct approach in terms of songwriting, as rock guitars play a larger role on this album than any other M83 record before (or after, for that matter). “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” feels like the group’s true inhibition-free pop moment, surging guitar strums on the refrain and Gonzlaez’s most confident vocal take yet, the raucous choruses coming as stark contrast to the almost-tranquil minimalism of the verses, creating a kind of push-pull dichotomy that makes M83 sound like they’re ready to conquer stadiums, something which no one would have thought of the band previously. Yes, there’s still a few “M83-by-numbers” synth-wash fests to be found (“In the Cold I’m Standing”, “I Guess I’m Floating”), but they’re often couched by so many different sounds that it’s easier to buy these instrumentals as a mere changing of pace instead of writing it off as mere filler.

In fact, what surprises most about the band’s evolution in Before the Dawn Heals Us is how Gonazlez merges his natural cinematic instincts with his obvious pop-song inclinations, resulting in tracks like the lovely piano ballad “Wait” and the early synth-pop triumph that is “Teen Angst”. With “Teen Angst” especially, despite hiding his voice behind vocoders and the like, Gonzalez has never sounded as at-home as he does here. The pop numbers with guitars certainly add flavor to the group’s catalog, but there’s a potency in his synth-driven efforts that come off as more natural-sounding in the long run. Before the Dawn Heals Us is definitely more sprawling than Dead Cities, and at times goes down intensely dark roads that were only hinted at previously (the terrifying “Car Chase Terror” immediately comes to mind), but ultimately, Before the Dawn Heals Us doesn’t feature the same notable leap in songwriting that the band exhibited between their debut and Dead Cities, instead showcasing a more expanded and refined palette, honing in ever-closer on to the elements that make M83 as unique as it is.

The best part about M83’s ever-shifting career is that it feels like there is still so much that has yet to be written, despite the fact that even if Gonzalez quit the game right now, his legacy would be firmly secure. M83 ultimately serves as a decent introduction and a curiosity that would best be absorbed by his hardcore acolytes, but Dead Cities and Before the Dawn Heals Us are important steps in Gonzalez’s musical evolution, featuring moments that can be construed as lovely, propulsive, cathartic, and sometimes even maddening. There’s still a lot to be written in M83’s story, but these re-releases make one remember that at times, the beginning can be sometimes just as fascinating as everything that comes after.

RATING 6 / 10