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Chopping Through the Space Jungle of Millennial Nostalgia with M83 at the Palace

No one else can duplicate the synth band's skyscraping, euphoric sound.

12:16 PM CDT on May 4, 2023

Elena Strawn

M83 in 2023 are still a band shadowed by the legacy of a single song, but with Wednesday’s set at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul they tried to step out of that shadow in two directions at once: forward and backward.

That song, of course, is “Midnight City,” a colossal banger licensed for about a million movie trailers and commercials in 2012, and a talisman of collegiate nostalgia for many in the band’s audience, smartly saved for the encore.

“Midnight City” and its parent album, 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming—and the long gaps that have followed—have made M83 nearly an also-ran in a lane they helped create. The show was not quite sold out, with empty seats dotting the balcony. Plenty of major rock bands of the last decade have taken little pieces of what M83 does and run with them for their own ends, from The War on Drugs’ heartland-rock version to Tame Impala’s pivot into a big, synth-studded sound in the middle of the last decade. Both those bands blew up in the gap between Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and 2016’s Junk. The 1975 take pains to pace their albums like M83’s, peppering them with ambient interludes, and they recycle a lot of the same sounds, but in place of Anthony Gonzalez’s endearing blankness in the frontman role they have Matty Healy’s lovable or hateable self-aware loudmouth schtick.

Some might consider any of these bands an improvement, an M83 2.0, but none truly duplicates their skyscraping, euphoric-over-something sound. M83’s music is about the act of feeling, the state of being overwhelmed by emotion, any emotion, of wanting to be overwhelmed, and despite its vagueness, there’s still no substitute for the real thing.

At the Palace on Wednesday, “Oceans Niagara,” the first single off Fantasy and the first real song of the set (which opened, like the album, with the brief intro of “Water Deep”) laid the stakes out early. The lyrics are just the words “beyond adventure” repeated intermittently. If it’s about anything, it’s about the big chords the band hits in unison, drums crashing, starting about a minute in and recurring throughout the song.

This felt like a fanfare, but it also got a little boring. See, “Oceans Niagara” doesn’t really go anywhere else once the band starts doing those big hits. The studio version has a subtle motion of the individual layers of sound to maintain interest, but live, those details were squashed in the din.

Gonzalez is a synth dork in a synth dork’s band, but his shows are rock shows. He played guitar all night, even if he was sometimes drowned out by the waves of synthesizer coming from the three or four keyboardists. The set was heavy on new material. Unsurprising—Gonzalez has specifically talked up his excitement to tour Fantasy, and the new songs are largely good live. They have plenty of nice moments that land big when a tight band hits them—sudden key or chord changes, or spots where they add or remove a beat or two from one bar. But they could have felt more alive. Many of Fantasy’s songs are long, offering room for the kind of cheeseball guitar-shredding Steve Vai contributed to 2016’s “Go!” Vai’s probably too expensive to tour with, but a little bit of shred could have taken the new material to another level on stage.

It’s odd for music this big-sounding to be so unambitious, comfortable even, but that’s where M83 have arrived with Fantasy. It’s an album of quality deep cuts. That’s what they’re promoting now, but M83’s first big album, Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts just hit its 20th anniversary, and its rawer songs provided a couple of set highlights.

Dead Cities is a weird album, melding Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine and Nintendo-flavored sounds into a bizarrely affecting whole. Gonzalez wasn’t using real drums yet, but he was treating drum machines like real drums being absolutely bashed; programmed percussion almost never has so much crash cymbal. But it works.

Live, of course, those drums were bashed by a human. That works too. Dead Cities standouts “Run Into Flowers” and “Noise” brought a higher level of intensity to the set. The band moved in unison, headbanging slowly; during “Noise,” Gonzalez fell to his knees soloing amid the wall of sound.

These loud, heavy, wordless songs were dropped into the middle of the set without comment, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they confused some fans unfamiliar with the material. “Menacing” isn’t a word much associated with this band, but it applied here.

Where the layering of Fantasy couldn’t always shine through, the smearing effect of the live environment only added to the Dead Cities songs and “Don’t Save Us From the Flames,” from Before the Dawn Heals Us.

The stage set-up was appropriate for touring an album called Fantasy. Every type of rock show lighting element you can imagine was in play: glowing orbs, slowly twinkling star lights, Venus flytrap-looking arrays, translucent beams, colored spotlights that glided out over the audience, strobes. Tall, reflective lighting fixtures spaced around the stage reminded me of the space jungle flora on the Felucia map in Star Wars: Battlefront 2 for the Playstation 2. During “Wait,” faint beams of light projected off the stage to look like a giant cobweb draping the stage and the first few rows of general admission.

A projector screen behind the band showed trippy visuals: planets colliding, high-speed portal entries, supernovas that transformed seamlessly into hands clasping. Later, a familiar figure appeared on the screen: the multi-eyed man from Fantasy’s cover. Tears streamed from his two main eyes (not the forehead one), then, later, laser beams.

This man also appears on the tour’s shirts. I’ve seen polarized Internet opinions about this dude on Fantasy’s cover, but I like him. The cover continues M83’s streak of bold, sometimes weird, yet generally great visuals. You can say a lot of things about it, but the one thing I won’t hear is that it’s not “appropriate” for the music. Anthony Gonzalez is a guy who sincerely loves movies with chintzy, muppet-based practical effects and a guy who makes the most grandiose synth-pop of the 21st century, and those two characteristics not only don’t contradict each other—they’re different manifestations of the same thing: the chase for wonder, awe, for the rush of childlike feeling. This side shows through mostly in the band’s visuals, but it deepens the music rather than disrupting its aesthetic coherence. There is a cartoonish quality to M83. Just listen to the synth squawks on the intro of “Midnight City”—it may have soundtracked the best night of your life in college, but it’s got as much goofiness as gravitas.

A lot of Dead Cities fans felt betrayed by the way M83 traded its austere, distraught sound for the John Hughes soundtrack moves of their most popular material. But they’re all the same: Overwrought emotion is the through-line of the entire discography. Dead Cities starts with a computerized voice sobbing over the beauty of nature; Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has that interlude about frogs. It’s corny all the way down. Always has been. There’s no shame in that. If you think there is, see them live. If your face doesn’t bloom into a shit-eating grin at least a couple times, you may want to double check that you aren’t wearing an elaborate, furry, hook-nosed mask with googly eyes, immovable jaw, and matching claw-footed bodysuit, beneath which your true face, the one you hide in from the world, smiles unbidden.

Setlist

Water Deep
Oceans Niagara
Amnesia
Earth to Sea
Us and the Rest
Run Into Flowers
Gone
Fantasy
Laura
Don’t Save Us From the Flames
Noise
Wait
Solitude
Sunny Boy
Sunny Boy Part 2
Dismemberment Bureau
Teen Angst
*
We Own the Sky
My Tears Are Becoming a Sea

Encore

Midnight City
Mirror
Outro

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