ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE 405 (NOW DEFUNCT)
When M83 released Junk in 2016, fans of the dream-pop/synth-wave were disappointed, to say the least. Considering the esteemed project was following up the release of Hurry Up, We're Dreaming—an undoubted cultural touchstone from this decade—the backlash was well-warranted. But I, an M83 stan, was in the minority to defend Anthony Gonzalez's silly trek into ‘70s synth-pop pastiche. Unfortunately, the majority was right, the record was too insincere to take seriously in the long haul. Junk really was—junk. To be fair, the 2016 record was M83’s lone misstep amidst an existence that spans the entire 21st century. So should fans be worried that the self-serving nostalgia of Junk becomes a trend? Well, yes.
Revisiting the fragmented beauty of 2007’s <em>Digital Shades Vol.1, M83 newest record DSVII inevitable sequel to its predecessor, but over a decade later. Like the first album, the second installment of this series leans heavily on ambient sounds and soundtrack-like atmospheres, but veer from the hook-y pop songs of records like Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and of course, Junk.
Speaking of soundtracks, DVSII is directly inspired by the mythical and magical worlds of video game music from long ago, like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and yes, The Legend of Zelda. For Gonzalez, these games not only served as a creative entry point—but a solace as well. In fact, after composing music for Cirque du Soleil’s show <em>Volta</em> a year back, Gonzalez became exhausted and empty, causing him to go home to reflect on the next steps in his career. During this time, M83’s mastermind became re-enamored by the whimsical video games and films that initially sparked his creativity as a child. “There is something so naive and touching about [old video game music]. It’s simple and imperfect,” Gonzalez stated in the album’s press release. “And this is exactly what I tried to achieve with </em>Digital Shades Vol. 2.”
With the desire and goal to create for himself and to be surrounded by the past with the art that helped define this past, Digital Shades Vol. II was born. Bursting with “vivid memor[ies] of Dungeons and Dragons and childhood fantasies with magic and adventure at the core of it all, DSVII is a naive collection of faraway thoughts, memories, and dreams brought into the musical realm—much like DSVI. However, unlike its predecessor, DSVII is a much more cohesive record that tries to communicate a very specific mood or world. But the two projects set alongside each other harken to ambient “collections” that helped influence Gonzalez during the production of this record, namely Brian Eno’s selected ambient works which set the gold standard of what we all know ambient music to be today. In the press release for DSVII, Gonzalez stated that he loves “the idea of a collection,” and was “always...fascinated by Brian Eno’s ambient work. These records all had a lot of things in common, starting with similar artworks and titles that made you think they were all connected to each other while providing a different experience each time.”
An inspired record through and through, there’s no denying that M83’s return to ambient surpasses everything on and about Junk, in which Gonzalez himself sensed there was a great disappointment. Unfortunately, as much of an inside joke that Junk was, this record is equally self-serving. There’s nothing wrong with making art you like, for the sake of making art you like, but for a project that built a reputation predicated on creating music that was connective, anthemic and spoke to the wistful yet depressed “post-generation,” DSVII lacks any emotional depth for listeners to cling onto. DSVII certainly has its quintessential M83 moments of emotional grandeur, like the opening track 'Hell Riders' and the album closer (and lead single) ‘Temple of Sorrow’. Unfortunately, the rest of the record spends so much time stuck neck-deep beneath kitsch-y nostalgia, it can never fully explore the blueprint laid by the composers of Gonzalez’s favorite video game soundtracks.
When Gonzalez said he was shooting for a sound that resembled that of video game music from yesteryear, he really wasn’t kidding. However, when DSVII is not busy sounding as if it was pulled directly from <em>Final Fantasy</em> (among other games), some moments come across like a lesser version of a Tangerine Dream record. Although it’s hard to compare anyone to Tangerine Dream, Gonzalez does a damn spot-on impression of the German electronic auteurs. Flattering? Probably. Unfortunately, there’s not much originality from this record to feel good about making such a comparison.
Throughout M83's existence, Anthony Gonzalez has shown an uncanny ability to weave together magical musical moments few composers are capable of. For this very reason, it’s frustrating that M83 attempts to capture the magic that has already been conjured—several decades ago—rather than creating their own. But this isn’t to say, DSVII won’t find an audience; in fact, it will probably be an enjoyable experience if you’re looking to nerd out and reminisce about the video games and fantasy films you used to love. But for the majority of listeners, this record will turn out to be just another addition to M83’s catalog as it seems to simply exist for Gonzalez's nostalgic self-satisfaction.
Between this and Junk, the trajectory of M83 seems stuck in retro-pastiche, with there being little-to-no hope of returning to their former greatness. What made M83 so great was its inclination to look forward as well as backward. Unfortunately, DSVII—like Junk— looks backward without bringing anything new to the table.
THE 405 RATING: 5.5/10