M83 takes its name from a galaxy cluster, so it’s not surprising that most of the adjectives used to describe Anthony Gonzalez’s music have taken on an extraterrestrial tone: celestial, epic, astral. Those terms also applied to last year’s glorious double LP Hurry Up, We‘re Dreaming, but there was one related and notable difference in its intentions: a clear effort to turn Gonzalez into a star.
It’s worked out pretty well so far, and M83’s new tour, which kicked off last night at Pomona’s Fox Theatre, appears to be the ultimate test case of its effectiveness. The band is now “critically acclaimed,” and teetering on the precipice of a genuine mainstream breakthrough. They’ve got a lot of momentum right now: an EP accompanying “Reunion,” the second single from Hurry Up, is on the way, and they’re set for a very appropriate and very high-profile 10 p.m. slot on Coachella’s Friday night schedule. And while “Midnight City” was one of the few tracks to tap into a zeitgeist in the indie community during 2011, after numerous late-night appearances, a killer video, dozens of remixes and a Victoria Secret’s placement – almost nine months after its initial release – it is something that had avoided Gonzalez’s grasp over the past decade: an honest-to-God, Billboard-charting hit.
Which is exactly as Gonzalez planned it. Having toured with the likes of the Killers, Depeche Mode and, um, Kings of Leon prior to recording Hurry Up, he was fascinated by how a magnetic frontman could convey a song’s message on a mass scale far more effectively than a finely-tuned synth swell. So he placed his own vocals at the fore to an extent his largely instrumental records never dared.
Likewise, when M83 takes the stage these days, it’s something like a power trio, with acoustic drums and Fender guitars, albeit with the added touch of retro processing banks the size of grand pianos. To further this point, 2003’s all-synth, almost vocal-free breakthrough, Red Cities, Dead Seas and Lost Ghosts, has been completely excised from the setlist.
Judging from last night’s beyond-sold-out show, Hurry Up is indeed a point of no return for the idea of M83 as one man’s hermetic studio project. It seemed awfully apparent they’ve maxed out their capacity as a club act, an impressively strobing lightshow cramming the quartet within lattices of angular flashbulbs. And for a band whose imagery, lyrical purview and sonics are so inextricably linked to nostalgia, it’s heartening to see so many people who appear to be generating memories for future usage: the crowd skewed incredibly young.
In fact, right next to me was a father my age taking his six-year old son to his first-ever concert, and much of M83’s performance could’ve easily translated to someone without a real grasp of language (lyrics never played a huge role to begin with). What’s promising for their Coachella show is just how much M83, and Gonzalez in particular, have risen to the occasion as the crowds have gotten bigger. You can pretty much judge how on M83 will be from “Reunion”: its high-wire vocals were pretty ragged when they first started touring Hurry Up, but this time Gonzalez was nailing every note of its soccer-crowd chant.
The opening flurry of synthesizer on “Intro” is goosebump-triggering any time, but where guest Nika Danilova of Zola Jesus absolutely blew Gonzalez off the stage last time, this time he went pound-for-pound with the equally imposing vocals of Morgan Kibby. Older songs were altered in ways that acknowledged their potential incarnation as rock anthems: “Graveyard Girl” slowed to a churning, half-time crawl before its hormonal coda and “We Own the Sky” did the opposite, its hazy outro flipped to a high-BPM disco blaze.
Gonzalez still doesn’t do much to command a crowd’s attention, but in retrospect, the point of Hurry Up wasn’t necessarily the glorification of Gonzalez so much as an attempt to bring M83 itself to the largest audience possible. It’s a record that gains power from mass exposure. It’s easy to overlook how Gonzalez falls back for long stretches of M83’s hour-long without the momentum waning, whether it’s vigorous, Blade Runner-esque synth workouts like “A Guitar and a Heart,” the percussion mad “Year One, One UFO” or songs like “We Own the Sky,” where Kibby takes the lead. Who else can visually render a song called “Teen Angst” in all fluorescent purples and reds? While M83 is a band free of ego, it might just be free of id as well.
Of course, the most obvious recognition of how things changed for M83 in the past year is placing “Midnight City” as their penultimate song in the setlist (followed by the positively Dark Side of the Moon-aspiring refurbishment of “A Guitar and a Heart,” from Before the Dawn Heals Us). I’ve seen three different saxophone players come on stage for the solo, and it gets longer every time. A lot of people don’t know the words (other than “the city is my church!,” that is – I hope one day Gonzalez totally corndogs it and throws in the place he’s playing, i.e., “Pomona is my church!”). Still, everyone sings along with that indelible honking riff. “Midnight City” finally achieves one descriptor that M83 has been gunning for all along: universal.