(Mute Records, CD)
From the opening chords of "Don't Save Us From the Flames," the second cut on M83's Before the Dawn Heals Us, it's clear that the French band is playing by its own rules. The last time I heard this kind of synthesizer abuse was on The Cure's miserable masterpiece Disintegration. I didn't know how much I missed it.
Originally one of Europe's best-kept secrets, M83 became a sensation with the worldwide release of Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts in 2004. That record combined the hazy, shoegazing aesthetic of My Bloody Valentine with the metallic sheen of modern electronica. It topped many taste-makers' year-end lists, but left the group wide open for a backlash; reviews for the new disc have been lukewarm at best. While it's true that M83 have modified their sound, they are hardly deserving of such critical antipathy.
Actually, the pronoun "they" is no longer accurate. Mastermind Anthony Gonzalez's musical partner Nicolas Fromageau left shortly after Dead Cities' first wave of acclaim. Gonzalez completed its sequel largely by
himself, with some help from a hired rhythm section.
While Before the Dawn lacks the dynamic subtleties of its predecessor, it's still a powerful record. Large, lush and luminous, it's the musical equivalent of Vegas neon -- a massive blast of aural iridescence. The Eurotrash lyrics are cheesy to be sure, but are a great match for the extravagant sonic backdrop.
The driving "Teen Angst" features angelic vocals and sweeping keyboards that pour over the rigorous drum work like molten lava. To hell with the pretentious indie-snobs -- this is one of the most gorgeously intense tunes I've heard in a long time. With its relentless attack and romantic core, it's what punk rock might sound like on Venus.
That's not to say there aren't a few missteps. Gonzalez's penchant for layered keyboards and studiously detached vocals sometimes approach overkill. The mind-melting refrain in "Can't Stop" manages to annoy within the first 15 seconds. But the following track "Safe" gets it right, featuring gorgeously spare piano and haunting vocal melody reminiscent of solo John Lennon.
So don't believe the anti-hype. Before the Dawn Heals Us is baroque and bombastic but absolutely enjoyable. Hear M83 Sunday, April 17, at Club Metronome with German electronic musician Ulrich Schnauss.