Digital Shades Vol. 1
igital Shades is an apt name for Anthony Gonzalez’s fourth album under the moniker M83; as the suffix suggests, this is the first part of a tangential project, and as the title suggests, it sees Gonzalez moving away from the overdriven post-shoegaze drama of M83’s more signature work and into… well, shades of digital ambience. Waves break. Birds sing. Synths play sustained and becalmed progressions.
Gonzalez has spent his M83 career to date attempting to be the antithesis of what you might understand as ambient, jackhammering all his sonic tricks upfront and bludgeoning his audience with a kind of ADHD shoegaze made on synthesizers with nary a guitar in sight. Subtle is not a word you would associate with M83, especially not Before The Dawn Heals Us, which took the already OTT aesthetic established on Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts and inflated it further into a realm of hysterical, crepuscular dramatics. The irony of this maximalist approach? It often ends up tuning itself out through over-exertion and actually becomes ambient by default; there’s only so much breakneck attention to give before one’s mind wanders.
At only 35 minutes, Digital Shades Vol. 1 is short, and indeed one of the problems with it is the consequent brevity of many of its tracks. “Strong & Wasted,” “Space Fertilizer,” and the two parts of “Sister” each clock in at around or about two minutes, giving scant time for a mood to be developed, sustained, and slowly, beatifically altered. “Dancing Mountains,” which is one of the rare tracks that stretches over five minutes, seems more like two ideas stitched together than a single, evolving unit, giving way as it does to central passages of nothingness before its plangent pianos re-emerge. The result is an album that ends up feeling like segues after segue after segue. It’s a bit like watching a string of TV adverts with no hope of actual programming at the end of it.
The other main problem is that most of Digital Shades Vol. 1 just sounds like Gonzalez made a regular M83 record while his drum machine was broken; the textures, progressions, melodies, and overall aesthetic are exactly as you would expect from M83 despite the novel conceit supposedly driving the album. Occasionally tools beyond synth presets are effectively deployed—the aforementioned field recordings of breaking waves in the imaginatively-titled “Waves Waves Waves,” for instance, or “Coloring the Void,” which rests on genuinely beautiful vocals that dapple like the sun seen upwards through coral seas. These are all too brief glimpses of what Gonzalez could have done here had he avoided succumbing to laziness. Instead, Digital Shades Vol. 1 is a pleasantly pointless exercise.