DSVII, short for Digital Shades Volume II, is the first proper studio album in 3 years from M83, a French electronic music outfit fronted by Anthony Gonzalez. They’ve been a staple of the indie scene for many years now, and a personal favorite of mine for as long as I can remember. Perhaps their biggest draw is that their songs and albums have always been unabashedly cinematic. There’s just something so huge about everything they put out; a good majority of their songs could serve as the soundtrack for a planet collision or a supernova explosion. This makes them a great fit for scoring films like Oblivion, Divergent, or the films of Anthony’s brother Yann (Knife + Heart, You and the Night). Even when they pivoted to more straightforward pop music about midway through their career, songs like “Kim & Jessie” and “Midnight City” still sound absolutely massive, evoking the same giant, melancholy feelings as the classic John Hughes coming of age films. Ian Cohen of Pitchfork said it best: “every new and increasingly colossal M83 studio record has led to widespread crowdsourcing of synonyms for epic”. The last thing you would ever call them is inconsequential.
Which makes their last studio release, 2016’s Junk, such an oddity in their discography. The 80s influences the band always wore on their sleeve and incorporated with such sincerity are now reinterpreted as complete kitsch; that isn’t to say that they blatantly make fun of the decade on the record, but there’s something much more humorous and carefree about this album that makes it stick out as truly unique. It’s the same band, just on a much smaller, less meaningful scale. I enjoyed it overall (the track “Solitude” in particular is one of their very best) but one thing was clear amongst critics and audiences: it was inferior to their previous work. After the relative disappointment of Junk, Gonzalez sought to return M83 to their more ambient, analog roots with this album, a semi-sequel to 2007’s Digital Shades Vol. 1.
What sticks out to me most about DSVII is that it’s the first studio release from him in a long time that sounds like the product of one person; Gonzalez seems to be all on his own here, with no big guest spots to speak of. Gone are the shoegaze influenced soundscapes that were present in his early work, and gone is the overblown, nothing to lose romanticism of his work at the turn of the decade that’s since defined his career. This album feels less like the best movie of the year and more like a video game you can’t help but go back to when you’re bored.
The album begins with “Hell Riders”, a tense slow burn with a prog-ish feel. It carries a sense of urgency not found on the first Digital Shades album. “A Bit of Sweetness” and “Goodbye Captain Lee” follow, offering a cool down after the climax of the first track. They serve as the perfect set up for “Colonies”, a phenomenal ambient composition that recalls the droning harmonies of the band’s earlier albums. After “Meet the Friends”, another pleasant, if unremarkable track, comes “Feelings”, the third single from the album. It’s a return to the intensity of “Hell Riders”, and features a feel switch around the 2 minute mark that is nothing short of awesome. The song also serves as the soundtrack for one of the strangest music videos I’ve ever seen.
This is where DSVII falls into a bit of a lull: the songs that follow aren’t bad, but they seem insignificant in comparison to the start and end of the album. “A Word of Wisdom” sounds strikingly similar to “For the Kids” off of Junk, and although I don’t know for sure, I’m pretty certain they use the same vocalist on this track too (Susanne Sundfor). However, instead of carrying the kind of raw emotion that song carried, Sundfor’s reduction to merely a background chorus makes the track sound like a wholesome drug PSA. “Lune de fiel” takes a hard left turn into a song that feels like a battle sequence, albeit one that’s very easy for the heroes to win. The next 3 songs risk flatlining the album, with none of them seeming like anything more than Junk B-sides. You can’t help but wonder what the album could be if some of these were reduced to interludes, or cut entirely.
Luckily, the album recovers with the 5-minute mini-epic “Oh Yes You’re There, Everyday”, striking that big emotional chord that M83 knows so well. “Mirage”, like “Colonies” before it, is a wonderful ambient song that evokes giant crashing waves. “Taifun Glory”, the penultimate track, is the album’s best piano piece, and serves as a fitting transition into the final epic conclusion.
M83’s always known how to end an album, serving up some of their most monumental songs including “Beauties Can Die”, “Lower Your Eyelids to Die with the Sun”, and of course, “Outro” off of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. “Temple of Sorrow”, the closer of DSVII is no exception. The first single released from the album, it takes its sweet time getting to the big needle drop of choirs and strings, but once it gets here, it hits you like a freight train.
Even if it runs about 10 minutes too long, M83’s latest is indeed a nice return to form, and one of the better new age/ambient albums I’ve heard recently. Gonzalez did a great job of incorporating motifs from video games and 80s fantasy films into his work, blending them seamlessly into a record that feels flat out magical most of the time. Like most ambient albums, it does work well as background music, but also as a casual listen when you need to cool off.