If M83 were a landscape, it would be endless, vast and open, God’s own country. If M83 were a building, it might resemble Cologne Cathedral, huge, imposing and, with its freakish gargoyles, somewhat unsettling. M83 is in fact a galaxy, and we have as much chance of defining that here as we do of pinning down single dust particles with a sponge, but fortunately M83 are also a band, and we can confirm that the name itself is triumphantly appropriate.
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BEFORE THE DAWN HEALS US is the third album from M83, essentially the brainchild of Anthony Gonzalez, a resident of Antibes, France. Like its two predecessors – the eponymous debut and it’s follow up, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts – it’s a huge and epic attempt to use music to transport its audience well beyond their immediate environment. This is a sound that is deliberately colossal, a sound that is as likely to recall Mussorgsky as Mogwai. It soars free effortlessly of the ties that bind it to everyday existence and evokes a sense of freedom that can usually only be found in drugs, sex or – for the more pure – meditation. What makes it all the more astonishing is that M83 have found a way of doing this that hasn’t really been tried before.
In the wave of bands that followed Mogwai (who themselves were hardly the first to provide epic soundscapes in which their audience could lose themselves) it was the guitar that was king, swathes of effects-laden noise creating an aural opiate haze for rock fans. Across town you could find fans of dance music indulging in similar activities, except that they were losing themselves in machine and pill induced trances. M83 are arguably the first band to successfully cross that divide, using the kinds of cheap synthesisers that propelled dance music alongside the guitars that they grew up with as fans of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. As the influential US website Pitchforkmedia.com succinctly summarised of M83, “the sounds that have constituted some of the most vapid, hedonistic, and forgettable music of our time have now returned to make us cry.”
If Dead Cities… made that reviewer weep, BEFORE THE DAWN HEALS US could have serious consequences for his mental health, because it takes the M83 template and magnifies it tenfold, with the added bonus that this time the album was unconstrained by the technological shortcomings that previously held the band back. Equally importantly, for the first time as much of the music was recorded live by Anthony and a variety of other musicians as was programmed. Vocals also play a considerably more significant part than on previous outings, which have been essentially instrumental albums into which vocal samples occasionally and expressively intrude.
What emerges throughout this hour long trip is a fearlessly ambitious work that is free of cynicism and capable of evoking an infinite range of emotions throughout its fifteen tracks. It’s the kind of album that sometimes recalls other significant artists, but fleetingly, like fireworks at night that burst open and then disperse silently. You’ll still hear My Bloody Valentine – a frequent and pleasant comparison even if Anthony never claimed it – but you’ll also hear Can and Tangerine Dream. At times the ghost of Brian Eno drifts by, at other times one is reminded of Vangelis’ memorable Blade Runner soundtrack. Trevor Horn’s immense production values for many of the albums on ZTT come to mind on occasions, even, unapologetically, ‘70s soft and progressive rock. But the cumulative effect of all the different ingredients which subliminally suffuse the M83 sound is never derivative. Instead their music is enriched by such a diverse range of influences and the result is something that truly sounds like no one else.
Like Dead Cities…, BEFORE THE DAWN HEALS US contains a number of immediately striking tracks, most notably its first single Don’t Save Us >From The Flames, a stridently optimistic and uplifting anthem that seems to feature a rogue theremin at its heart, as well as the trademark M83 sound of a stuck CD and beatific choral backing vocals. The elliptically titled * features a cacophony of abrasive e-bowed guitars that drop out dramatically and unexpectedly early on but regain their momentum until they seem relentless. Teen Angst metamorphoses from its stuttering introduction to a dreamlike ecstasy, before A Guitar And A Heart – a title that seems to encapsulate M83 in many ways – and the ten and a half minute Lower Your Highlights To Die With The Sun bring the album to a close that would overwhelm the most dramatic of Hollywood blockbusters.
But interspersed amongst these dramatic, almost celestial bursts lie more cerebral, peaceful moments like the gorgeous Safe, which floats on a bed of piano, or In The Cold I’m Standing, in which synthesised sounds of almost tubular purity wash across space. Let Men Burn Stars is almost visually illustrated with the sound of fireworks exploding in the background. Farewell/Goodbye, meanwhile, betrays the band’s French roots with a shamelessly sentimental arrangement that recalls soundtrack composer Francis Lai (Bilitis, Emmanuelle). It’s not all ethereal rapture, however: the use of spoken word monologues is especially effective at adding atmosphere to certain tracks, most notably the opening Moonchild and the disturbing Car Chase Terror ! Written by Anthony’s brother Yann Gonzalez and recorded by American theatre actress Kate Moran, these vignettes were inspired by the sci-fi and horror movies that have fascinated the two brothers since their childhood and add yet another dimension to their cinematic soundscapes.
Since the recording of Dead Cities…, M83 have achieved significant acclaim from both the media and the public at large, most notably in their homeland of France, the UK – where their debut show took place at the legendary Victoria & Albert Museum – and most recently the US, where, supported by Ulrich Schnauss, they sold out New York’s Bowery Ballroom and LA’s Knitting Factory, as well as performing two shows in one night in Chicago when demand for tickets became overwhelming. The album sold considerable amounts there on import until it received an official release in the summer of 2004 from Mute US. The current line up of M83 continues to be based around Anthony Gonzalez, but Nicolas Fromageau – who collaborated with Gonzalez on M83’s first two albums – has left to pursue his own musical projects (also due for release on Gooom). BEFORE THE DAWN HEALS US was recorded largely by multi-instrumentalist Gonzalez himself, with only bass and drum duties handled by others.
Although Gonzalez makes no secret of his admiration for Fromageau, especially his skills as a guitarist, it’s clear that the freedom he found in the studio working alone released a rush of creativity that has resulted in M83’s most complete work to date. Fusing different technologies in dramatic fashion, whilst never losing sight of the human warmth that engages us emotionally, this music can be whatever you allow it to be.
M83 are: Anthony Gonzalez (guitar, keyboards) / Ludovic Morillon (drums) / Stephane Bouvier (bass) / Philippe Thiphaine (guitar)