M83 @ the Greek Theatre on 10.28.16

I was kind of debating whether or not to do one of my own unique posts of live music, considering that earlier today, I featured access to a wealth of concert material in my previous entry for the “90s Festival Generator.”

But it’s the end of July, and I’m trying to dust off a pile of old entries, all before I embark on a new work-related project late next week. This one’s running through the start of September, and it’s a paying gig. So obviously, it’s going to take some precedence over what I do for this non-paying (albeit personally invaluable) blog. Thus, I’ll make a best attempt to keep the mix flowing, even if it’s a bit intermittent and/or infrequent.

That brings me to this afternoon’s offering of an older show from French-born/Los Angeles-based musician Anthony Gonzalez, best known for his unparalleled dream-laced project M83. This energetically rousing performance dates all the way back to October of 2016 at the spaciously intimate outdoor Greek Theatre, situated in the forested confines of lower Griffith Park. The tour celebrated M83’s then-latest album “Junk,” their first in five years and seventh overall.

Now, I’m just going to come out and say it. I wasn’t the biggest fan of “Junk.” It was fine as an album, well produced and slick as can be. But as an M83 work, it failed to impress, lacking the majesty and grandeur of previous endeavors. It certainly wasn’t the album I expected as follow-up to the brilliant double album opus “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” from ’11.

M83’s 2016 album “Junk.” The cover kind of says it all. Although, I do appreciate it’s clunky weirdness.

To his credit, “Junk” did embrace similar values, particularly the ’80s aesthetic, which I’m guessing is a mainstay in Gonzalez’s artistic view. But it also somehow lost that unbridled imaginative spirit, as well as the experimental sonic essence that characterized M83’s prior and earlier efforts. Gone were the cascades of spacious reverb washes, deep dive synths, and gliding vocal abstractions, all ultra-drenched in that effervescent echo chamber of infinite sound. In its place was a more compact, straightforward foundation, compressed into a cleaner, crisper and more controlled substance.

I’ve read that Gonzalez was driven by the inspirational sources of ’70s and ’80s television themes, an unlikely and bewildering muse. That’s all good. Creativity comes from an endless wellspring of possibilities. And I’m in full support of that.

My big gripe ultimately resides in the implementation and result, which didn’t quite measure up to the sheer audacity of “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” or my other favorite effort, the ’08 precursor “Saturdays = Youth.” Whereas these works possessed widescreen openness, “Junk” made me feel slightly claustrophobic. Perhaps, that’s due to stripping out most of the delay, or pushing Gonzalez’s vocals into unfiltered clarity. Or maybe, I just don’t find it as structurally interesting as these earlier releases.

Both “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” and “Saturdays = Youth” hearken back to the tried and true wall of synth and sound fantasies by the likes of electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream and feedback trailblazers My Bloody Valentine, both on opposite ends of the sonic spectrum, yet equally adventurous in kicking the boundaries. It’s where synth met shoegaze, a bubbly pop extravaganza veiled in a retro-future rock, effected by electro fusion and dance rhythms, yet punctuated with beautiful noise, all for its own sake.

Of course, given full disclosure, that is my music-minded wheelhouse. So it makes sense I’d gravitate towards those defining sounds. And now that I’ve rightfully ripped into “Junk,” I will say that through the intervening years, it has grown on me. Or perhaps, I’ve learned to distance it from my long-held perceptions of M83, and listen to it as its own unique thing.

Either way, I honestly do respect its sincerity, even if I don’t always agree with its creative choices. Plus, it was a hugely popular album, and delivered new unsuspecting fans to Gonzalez’s fuller body of work. So hey, he must be doing something right.

Not surprisingly, this past M83 performance at the Greek, which I’m pretty sure was their last proper SoCal show, leaned heavily into “Junk.” And in all fairness, the live renditions of this then-new material proved far more immediate and compelling than their studio counterparts. If I could, I’d include some of the livelier selections. But it turns out that I didn’t actually record any of them. I thought I grabbed the big single “Do It, Try It,” featuring hints of old school M83, or the catchy “Go!,” which is one of the newer efforts I actually do like. But neither was in my archives. So I guess not.

No matter. I’ve got a healthy selection of prior material, mostly from “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” which also factored heavily into their set … as well as into my heart. There’s seven tunes in total from that breakthrough album – ‘Reunion,” “Steve McQueen,” “Intro,” “Ok Pal,” “Wait,” “Midnight City” and “Outro” – which pretty much surmises the bulk of its glittering highlights.

It’s also worth noting that this tour featured the live debut of vocalist/keyboardist Kaela Sinclair, replacing longtime contributor Morgan Kibby, who departed prior to the recording of “Junk.” Quite awhile has passed since this show, so my memory is a little hazy. But from rewatching the clips, she seemed more than up to the task of filling Kibby’s very large legacy, honoring the old tunes in spirit, while adding her own vitality and vocal vigor.

Also, these clips are a far cry better than I remember. The sound is really bold and clear. And the view, although wider (viewed from the Greek’s second tier), is mostly centered and intermittently steady. There’s also some semi-blown-out close ups, thanks to the LED monitors flanking the stage sides.

Here’s the selects from “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, starting full up with an energetic “Reunion,” matched by “Steve McQueen.”

M83 perform “Reunion” at the Greek Theatre on 10.28.16.

M83 perform “Steve McQueen” at the Greek Theatre on 10.28.16.

I distinctly recall experiencing “Intro” at the Fonda Theatre for the initial round of the “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” tour, where Zola Jesus showed up to lend her formidable voice, as she did on album, to help kick off the show. That was back in ’11, at the start of November.

This rendition doesn’t feature that same level of visceral impact. But it’s got a beautiful starlight stage presence. And newcomer Sinclair fills in those vocal blanks with spirited enthusiasm.

M83 perform “Intro” at the Greek Theatre on 10.28.16.

M83 perform “OK Pal” at the Greek Theatre on 10.28.16.

“Wait” is truly epic melancholy, uplifting and despondent all at once, rendered here as a beautiful duet, full of powerfully understated restraint and subtlety. Again, new vocalist Sinclair nails it, even causing one howling audience member in front of me to spontaneously yell “Fucking awesome!” I think he would’ve annoyed me, if I didn’t wholeheartedly agree.

M83 perform “Wait” at the Greek Theatre on 10.28.16.

“Midnight City” is one of those rare instances where the sax syncs with M83’s synth washed brand of bouncy, buoyant ’80s dream pop.

M83 perform “Midnight City” at the Greek Theatre on 10.28.16.

And I’ll always remember “Outro” from the trailer for the sci-fi opus “Cloud Atlas.” It feels entirely cinematic in its closing notes, perhaps offering signs and portents to Gonzalez’s subsequent foray into film soundtracks and ambient instrumentals. M83 did perform “Oblivion,” the title track for the film of the same name. But like many others in the set, I neglected to capture it.

M83 perform “Outro” at the Greek Theatre on 10.28.16.

I’ve also got the monolithic synth odyssey “We Own the Sky” from “Saturdays = Youth,” one of two tracks performed from this classic album, the other being the oft played “Couleurs,” which is another one I didn’t film. I do wish they would’ve at least included the seminal summer single “Kim & Jessie” from this release. But I haven’t seen them break this out since ’08.

M83 perform “We Own the Sky” at the Greek Theatre on 10.28.16.

To round it all off, M83 performed a true oldie with “Lower Your Eyelids to Die with the Sun” from the ’05 album “Before the Dawn Heals Us,” which incidentally, is the first material I ever heard from them. There’s far more mood, menace and melancholy to these earlier efforts, which probably doesn’t sync as fluidly with the current ethos of Gonzalez and co. But this particular track does act as hopeful effigy, despite its sprawling solemnity. As such, it ended the show, just as it concludes the album.

M83 perform “Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun” at the Greek Theatre on 10.28.16.

That’s all I’ve got for this M83 flashback, which now that I’ve had the chance to reprocess, totally ignores the tour it was based on, and instead embraces the earlier songs. In hindsight, it’s kind of funny, and somewhat narrow-minded. But I guess, when you have a band so distinctly defined by such a specific sound and style, any deviation is certainly going to be viewed with a high degree of scrutiny.

Perhaps, that’s unfair to Gonzalez, and his artistic aspirations. I totally get that. But after listening to some of his current instrumental works, like last year’s ambient “DSVII,” I do hope that one day, he returns to his more expansive, explosive roots … maybe even carrying a little of what he’s done today into that classic sonic spectrum of synth wash and deep reverb.

Anyway, enough about “Junk,” and other latest works. I’ve got plenty of great vintage M83 to experience and enjoy here. It all still sounds timeless and of the moment. And hopefully, it’ll help hold you over until we can all get back to proper concert going, as well as that rumored tour for next year.

Until the next concert flashback …

M83 perform at the Greek Theatre on 10.28.16.