February 10, 2004

M83 "Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts"

When Lester Bangs interviewed Kraftwerk it wasn’t quite the deep belly laughs of his interviews with Lou Reed post-Metal Machine Music or his typewritten accompaniment to J. Geils Band in Detroit, but it had a distinguished piquancy about it. They were all business; they’d have no truck with his silliness, but in the most interesting fashion possible. Kraftwerk discussed the centrality and importance of motorik as though they were Bavarian automobile industry executives. They averred that the music played them rather than the other way around. And by inverting the possibility of authorship they actually hoped that the music would become its own entity, not simply a reification of the technique that is motorik, but the re-creation of the audience and the sophistication of the listener to hear the melodies hidden in our environment.

M83 maintains some of these qualities, but more in the fashion of a Renault factory struck by the C.G.T. in the late sixties. The combination of mechanical and pastoral elements evokes the modern urban landscape in the same manner as Wagner; one can envision approaching place through space and time via country roads that become highways and finally a destination. The first two tracks sound like waking up and commuting: “Birds” is just that, with voices that could be the radio alarm clock lifting the listener out of sleep, while “Unrecorded” comes across like morning news. And “Run into Flowers” combines sound and motion, creating something tonally ambivalent; there’s no detectable dread mounting, even as the music crescendos.

Like the Situationistes in the late Sixties, the signs and signifiers get all mixed up, detourned. M83 hijack “In Church” and pipe electro-baroque into a secular confessional; this is an emotional record, and the chorus doesn’t respond to the events of the narrative-instead it isolates a mood, allowing the listener to meditate on the visual aspects of the song. The middle third of the album sounds like blessed out site-seeing: the music of construction sites being passed sound like symphonies of circular saws (“Be Wild”). “On a white lake, near a green mountain” sounds like the opening scenes of Aguirre: Wrath of God, a scene so serene one suspects something brooding beneath its surface. “Noise” disappoints only in that it doesn’t create the tension one might suspect at the end of side two.

As the third side concluded, the motorik returned. The commute home after a day when the server crashed and nobody cared. In fact, it sounds like everyone rejoiced. The eighteen minute long title track recapitulates these themes over a procrustean bed of white noise that juxtaposes the banal and the paranormal. M83 generates a sound so decidedly French in stark contrast to other glitch and electronic artists today. Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts marks another entrant to the new electronische Musik: ambivalent in tone, agnostic on purpose, and exciting nonetheless.

--JT Ramsay

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