Before Grammy nominations and blockbuster soundtracks, M83 proved to the world that shoegaze and electronica could thrive in the same space. The then-duo feasted on a history of computer music, striving to create life with airless tools. By aspiring to post-rock heights with dusty samples and laymen’s synths, Anthony Gonzalez and Nicolas Fromageau broke a longstanding mold of restrained, austere electronic music. Under their hands, synths could swell and scream like forces of nature.
Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts started M83 on the track to global recognition, and still stands as one of the most solid, replayable efforts from the group. For the record’s 10th anniversary, we look into five artists written into its DNA, plus five artists who have since drawn from the breakout release.
My Bloody Valentine
Countless bands have drawn upon Loveless, but few have run with My Bloody Valentine’s innovations deep into the world of electronica. M83 was one of the first. There might not be many guitars to pick out from the squalls on Dead Cities, but what Shields did to guitars is everywherein the way the pads pulse, in the leads that build and topple in turn.
There’s no question that Gonzalez shares an affinity for scratchy treble with Jimmy Tamborello. While Dntel came off like a less sinister Boards of Canada, M83 inverted the pessimism that riddled both IDM acts. Tamborello’s pre-Postal Service releases best showcase the glitch and sweep that flooded Dead Cities‘ marrow. But while Dntel operated in miniature, M83 took the same knack for layering and expanded it across open space.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Sampling was nothing new for electronic music in 2003, but a non-musical sample driving a whole track was an idea that Gonzalez planted on Dead Cities before letting it blossom on 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us. “America”‘s garbled language calls to mind the vague characters that drift in and out of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s greying worlds. Dead Cities doesn’t indulge in Godspeed’s apocalyptic soothsaying, but an edge of that desperation still rims the album.
If M83 took its detail from Dntel and its punch from My Bloody Valentine, then it drew its scope from Sigur Rós. The strings that avalanche throughout ÃgÃ¦tis byrjun tumble into tracks like “Run Into Flowers”, which recall the same glacial landscapes of the Icelandic band’s homeland. Early Sigur Rós might have housed its share of darkness (try listening to “Ny Batteri” without clenching your teeth), but M83 picked up on the starry innocence of “Svefn G Englar” and “Starálfur” to grow its own candy-flecked epics.
It’s most obvious on delicate closer “Beauties Can Die”, but mÃºm’s magical realism permeates Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts. The Icelandic ensemble wielded synthesizers and hand percussion like they were both hatched from the same secret egg. Rather than pit the synthetic against the organic, mÃºm and M83 wove the two spheres of sound together until they couldn’t be distinguished.
Dead Cities proved that synths weren’t just vessels for exploring a cold future. They could be pranks, they could be toys, they could be fun. Few artists have pushed the synthesizer further into fun than Baltimore’s Dan Deacon. On his 2007 breakout Spiderman of the Rings, the Wham City ringleader mewls, clicks, and whirrs his way into an instantly recognizable sound that’s as much informed by Dead Cities as it is by Deacon’s inborn whimsy.
What started as a scrappy dance-punk outfit soon grew to fill the looming space carved out by M83’s early work. There’s little hope in the icy slats of a Crystal Castles record, and Alice Glass’ vocals might be worlds apart from Gonzalez’s, but Ethan Kath’s textural sensibilities owe plenty to M83’s first expeditions. Crystal Castles took Dead Cities‘ sheen and sharpened it to a lethal point.
School of Seven Bells
Alejandra Deheza’s vocals swoop over shellacked drums, steamy downstrokes, and chiffon synths. School of Seven Bells draws water from the same roots as M83, their love of melody and space aligning perfectly with Gonzalez’s. It’s not a complicated strategy, but School of Seven Bells is just one artist of many that learned from M83 how to take simple ideas and make them huge.
You might never get those screeches out of your head. On their debut Oracular Spectacular, Connecticut darlings MGMT drove synth leads into the collective psyche of college partiers around the country. By bending M83’s patches into unforgettable hooks, MGMT turned synth-rock into a mainstream narcotic.
Dead Cities‘ sound was sweet, but Passion Pit candied it even further. Unlike too much laminated indie pop, the Cambridge fivesome never forgot the depth of sound that M83 maintained throughout Dead Cities. On Manners especially, Passion Pit excel where most fall short by letting each song play in wide open space. Michael Angelakos learned from Gonzalez that pop sounds best when it can breathe.