Arts, Music, Review

M83’s ‘DSVII’ Gets Lost in References

On Friday, M83, led by frontman Anthony Gonzalez, returned with its eighth album. The project Digital Shades Vol. 2 is a sequel to 2007’s Vol. 1 and is somewhat of a continuation of the motifs that the band explored 12 years ago. 

In a press release sent to Spin, Gonzalez cited synth masterminds like Brian Eno, John Carpenter, and Suzanne Ciani, the aesthetic of 1980s sci-fi and fantasy movies, and video game soundtracks as the inspiration for this project, and attempts over the course of the album to capture the excitement and thrill inherent in his inspirations. It is a lofty task, one which he fails to fully achieve. In attempting to capture the flames of a past time, he fails to bridge the gap in his well-intentioned ode.

The album is a somewhat empty one—it rarely excites. Songs like “Temple of Sorrow” and “Feelings” are without question the best on the album and the only moments that really pique listeners’ interest. Songs like these are striking moments, which, if stretched over the course of the album, could have provided the exact effect that Gonzalez was hoping for. “Colonies” and “Goodbye Captain Lee” capture the cinematic ambience that Gonzalez is targeting, reaching the heights he hoped for. Sadly, M83 fails to maintain that energy, falling flat on most of the other songs on the album. While many of its prior efforts possess some level of replay value, there isn’t much to be heard on this album. The thrills that are usually present throughout are nowhere to be found.

The concepts and ideas behind the album are certainly interesting, though. DSVII is a genuine, full-hearted attempt at an homage to the forebears of the genres that M83 operates in. There is something genuinely intriguing about looking toward the past in order to find out how to improve your craft. Artists across genres and mediums have all taken inspiration from the past and used it to fuel their work, often producing timeless, decade-spanning works. 

One prime example of this is Kanye West, a man who has made much of his music through the sampling and interpolation of artists of the past. Looking backward to move forward is a timeless artistic tactic, one that often produces greatness. Which is why it is especially sad that M83 fails to achieve those levels of intrigue on this record.

The album is littered with influences, spanning beyond cinema and video games. There are odes to Italian prog rock, masters of the synth and snare, orchestral arrangements, and more. It truly is a work of love and admiration for those who paved the way.

DSVII is an album filled with untapped potential. There are moments of beauty, stuck like diamonds in the rough. While they are few and far between, once you stumble upon them, you can’t help but be struck. Gonzalez manages to catch lightning in a bottle but is infuriatingly unable to maintain it, losing steam on multiple occasions. Moments in the album play out like the worst documentary you could imagine instead of reminiscing on the thrills of sci-fi, lacking compelling subject matter and completely monotonous in its delivery. 

It’s a testament to the skill of M83 that, even in the midst of what is often just fodder, there are songs so beautifully compelling that they make you think twice about this album. These moments are so fleeting, though, that you can’t help but rage against them, wondering why M83 couldn’t capture this energy over the course of the entire record. By themselves, those few songs merit the utmost praise, but they are only parts of this album. The overall monotony of the project as a whole outweighs the brief beauty of the individual songs.

The passion behind this project, one that is clearly dear to everyone involved in its creation, is undeniable. This album means a lot to M83, and who’s to say that it won’t mean a lot to its fans, as well as general fans of the genres it is catering to. 

Passion projects are rarely ever complete duds: There will always be people who feel the emotion behind the artist and are completely drawn to it. That said, it’s sad that M83 fails to create the kind of masterpiece that it sought out to, but its efforts are admirable and save this album from falling completely flat. DSVII is worth a listen, but it’s hard to say how many times you’ll end up going back to it.

Correction, Sept. 23, 4:16 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Gonzalez with an ‘s.’ Anthony Gonzalez’s last name, in fact, ends with a ‘z.

Featured Image by Naïve Records

September 22, 2019