Anthony Gonzalez, the French musician behind now-one-man project M83, got famous by overwhelming us with sound – those great, biting walls of synths that screamed emotion practically forced us into awe. Today, he’s aiming to transport his audience with simpler, softer, and generally more transparent sound.
Digital Shades Volume 1 reprises the ambient aesthetic that characterized M83’s early work. The first in a proposed series of more ambient compositions under the new Digital Shades moniker, the compositions here approach evocations of desolate landscapes and starscapes from the abstract medium of ones and zeroes, rather than the other way round. The idea’s taken right through to the album’s marketing, which has relied heavily on web-based initiatives – that you get a digital-only bonus track when you buy it online, and that the physical CD comes with a code to download all the album tracks as MP3s.
On first glance, this seems something of a hold-your-breath release for those impatient for the next “real” M83 album (maybe doubled by the news that Ewan Pearson’s producing and that it’ll be out just after the new year). But in fact the intention’s more genuine. True, the Eno influence pre-dropped in the press release’s absolutely evident, but ambient’s not the only aesthetic fueling Gonzalez’s latest compositions. Hints of the old M83 synth-wall pop up throughout the album, always a crunching high point. If this music’s emo, it’s only in the sense that it displays emotion proud, as an inarguable cornerstone of every composition. For these songs more so than anything off M83’s last two albums, calm in and of itself’s a valid endpoint, rather than the prelude to a crashing catharsis.
Reverent as they may be towards their influences, Gonzalez’s compositions rarely dip into pastiche, or mere atmosphere for atmosphere’s sake. He’s already proven over the course of three albums a keen engineer of sound – both when to build layer-wise for impact, and when to twist compositions away from listeners’ expected resolutions. This quality’s casually displayed on Digital Shades, even if the approach is generally more laid-back. So on the glittering “My Own Strange Path”, the minimal melodic idea’s not as interesting as the unusual fuzzed-out/bouncing/fluttering effects that are scattered over the track’s soundscape. Even better is “Dancing Mountains”, a track whose opening, sedate piano melody cuts to silence for over a minute and a half mid-track, giving its return a heavy sweetness. These melodies don’t have the heavy-played significance of “Safe”, but in a way that’s just indicative of growing confidence. The music that doesn’t feel the need to assert itself is often the most powerful. It’s what made “Julia Pastrana” off Music for Moviebikers so powerful; the best of these compositions share that quality.
Digital Shades also shares his previous albums’ signature close-out slow-build – classically, a sprawling crescendo that leaves you strung-out, emotionally drained, eager for more. But where “Lower Your Eyelids to Die with the Sun” (a typical example) layered hiccupping effects then slow-struck ballad percussion then tiered, screaming choirs then synths up to the ceiling, its equivalent on Digital Shades takes the opposite path: Just when you’re expecting the track to take the final step into full-fledged glory, we return to the sedate piano theme of the opening. That’s what will frustrate some of M83’s older fans about this project. But at the same time, it’s a matter of different intention: Imagine Gonzalez scoring the next Koyaanisqatsi, or subbing his powerful synths for Air’s plonking electronic interpretation of desperation in Lost in Translation. That would be some powerful stuff.
Still, it says something that the most powerful song on Digital Shades is the one that showcases most straightforwardly its vocal melody. “Sister [Part.2]” is pure beauty. Over a wash of layered synths, Gonzalez’s echo-laden voice emotes: “Stay away from me”. It’s simple in both conception and execution – but the two and a half minutes, over too soon, leave a lasting impression. If Digital Shades Volume 1 really is to be turned into an ongoing series that expands M83’s musical language, it should maximize the emotive potential of ambient’s calm soundscapes. It’s a terrain that Gonzalez should have no problem appropriating. Otherwise, these records – beautiful as they are, and undoubtedly will be – may end up being looked upon as something of a footnote in an otherwise impressive catalogue.