In the weeks leading up to Anthony Gonzalez’s sequel to his 2007 ambient collection Digital Shades Vol. 1, the M83 mastermind dropped a trio of stunning videos helmed by director Bertrand Mandico — better known for his deliriously erotic 2018 debut feature Wild Boys (Les garçons sauvages). While the impetus behind the Gonzalez-Mandico collaboration was surely born out of mutual admiration, the resulting 19-minute companion film, Extazus, ultimately serves as both a clever PR move and a distraction from the lackluster collection it sought to promote in the first place.
Not only are “Temple of Sorrow”, “Lune de Fiel”, and “Feelings”, three of Digital Shades Vol. 2‘s (DSVII) best tracks, but this filmic EPK cannot deflect the reality that Gonzalez’s ode to analog synth trailblazers (Brian Eno, Suzanne Ciani, John Carpenter, and Mort Garson), early video game soundtracks, and ’80s sci-fi/fantasy films rarely catches fire like his past efforts. Even the charmingly retro, yet critically divided JUNK continues to yield satisfying surprises four years after its release. Here there’s little substance to warrant future spins. Save for a handful of striking moments scattered throughout DSVII‘s 57-minute running time, the album lacks the ingenuity of his pioneering predecessors’ output and the thrill-ride wonder of the genres he set out to salute.
Following this past spring’s brilliant Knife + Heart soundtrack, Antony and brother Yann Gonzalez’s menacing homage to blood-splashed Giallo films of yore, the online buzz surrounding DSVII has been loud. Expectations were high — the exact opposite of Digital Shades Vol. 1, which while pleasant, flew under the radar at the time of its release. The concept behind this record is intriguing, but the delivery is similar to receiving a box of hand-painted, artisan chocolate bonbons in the mail, and finding out the entire lot have melted. They looked and sounded so delectable on the website. It was a shame they didn’t survive the long journey.
The opening track, “Hell Riders”, sounds sinister on paper, but almost single-handedly kills the record’s momentum before it even has an opportunity to ignite. With sampled soprano voices and synth acoustic guitar pushed to the forefront of the mix, it feels like Celtic Woman meets Yanni at a renaissance fair. “A Bit of Sweetness” is innocuous, shrug-inducing Muzak – an extension of the aesthetic presented in track one – with what occasionally sounds like a cage of restless electronic birds warbling as they break free of their captivity.
The dream-like, moody “Goodbye Captain Lee” redeems all that came before, with an AIR meets Vangelis atmosphere about it. Fluttering snare drums appear and vanish as if to signify the reverential funereal music of the song’s title. Stacked choral vocals give way to a bizarrely sensual ending, lifted from one of the more intimate moments of the Blade Runner score. The transcendent “Colonies” is a widescreen, ambient masterpiece. Meditative and tranquil, it truly is one of DSVII‘s most staggeringly lovely moments. Unfortunately, the treacly “Taifun Glory”, “Meet the Friends”, and the schmaltzy “A Taste of the Dusk” all sputter before they take flight, and the brief “A Word of Wisdom” comes and goes without making much of an impression at all, save for luminous singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør’s wordless performance.
Epic album highlight “Lune De Fiel” recalls the more sunlit offerings of Italian prog-rock band Goblin. “Jeux D’Enfants” and “Lunar Son’s” flute/piano duet are a welcome respite to the monotony surrounding them. The quasi-baroque, sitcom theme vibe of “Oh Yes You’re There, Everyday” threatens to erupt in a fury of percussion, but plateaus once the staccato voices of the chorus appear. Enough cannot be said though about the gorgeous “Mirage”, which evokes the orchestral arrangements of Swansea electronic group Hybrid’s debut album Wide Angle, and the incredibly powerful closer “Temple of Sorrow”. They arrive too late in the game, though.
Think of DSVII like those old video RPGs of yore, where the prologue spins endlessly on, teasing the player into a mystical world of magic and mystery, but without any payoff. There are no fierce battles, moments of heart-pounding excitement, and no frightening face-offs with three-headed monsters. M83’s eighth album is akin to The Legend of Zelda without a villainous Ganondorf, Final Fantasy without Chaos, or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Legend without renegade replicant foe Roy Batty or Tim Curry’s devilish Darkness. There is no teeth or tension in Gonzalez’s music here. There is no palpable drama.
What remains are a few fleeting moments of quiet beauty, and they do not appear often enough, nor are they substantial for an album of this length. One has to imagine that long after the buzz surrounding this album has died out, the astonishingly beautiful short film will be all that anyone remembers. That is truly a shame because DSVII was obviously a passion project for all involved.