LIVE REVIEW: M83, Active Child at the Masquerade

M83 - Live at the Masquerade
Photo by Bobby Russell

On Halloween night 2011, Atlanta was haunted by the eerie electronic sounds of France’s M83. The event took place at the Masquerade, a perfectly creepy backdrop for the occasion. In true Halloween fashion, watching the sold out crowd arrive was like watching a freak parade. As every new costume came in it stacked extra layers of weirdness onto the sinister atmosphere of the evening.

The up-and-coming band Active Child, fronted by Pat Grossi, opened and set the ethereal, otherworldly tone for the night. A former member of Philadelphia Boys Choir, Grossi layered his angelic vocal chants over a series of quivering, flowing instrumentals led primarily by his harp playing. Listening to Active Child is like hearing strings of lament come down from the peaks of ancient mountains, chanted by the mouth of some endless sorrow. It’s breathtaking and beautiful, belonging more to emotion than sound. Mixed with the sights of the venue that night, it would have been impossible to not feel an uncanny disturbance of your soul. Everything about this frightening concoction set the perfect stage for M83.

With the tension at the boiling point, the house music kicked off, along with the lights. A low rumbling began to tremor through the room like birth pains before a miracle and bright red lights blasted into the crowd. Suddenly a beam of light shot to a lone figure on the stage. Dressed in the costume from the cover of M83’s latest album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was what we assumed was a human, but may have been something else entirely. The creature raised its arms to begin the show like some terrible monster beginning a wicked ritual. Upon its exit M83 took the stage and immediately began to crush the room with it’s super saturated electro music.

I had my doubts about how M83’s massive, liquid sound would work in a live setting. The majority of its instruments are synthetic and computer-generated. This sort of setup can often come off static, inorganic and lacking in sonic depth when played by a band. I was worried that such factors might negatively effect the band’s presence for their Halloween show. But M83 beat the odds on this one. Their enormous sound was in no way diminished live. In many ways it had more freedom to soar and stretch in a large concert hall than coming through headphones or car speakers. Every little nuance of the music was performed perfectly, weirdly, pristinely. In the live setting, the tasteful simplicity of M83’s padded layers of sound shown through more then I had ever noticed it before. Its oddness mingled with the creepiness of the holiday and the crowd and droned into a mystical stew of sights and sounds.

M83 - Live at the Masquerade
Photo by Bobby Russell

If there was one drawback for me, it was when the band performed some of their newer material. On Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, the group relies more predominantly on vocal parts than on previous releases. The structures of these songs are also more straightforward rock songs than droning shoegaze. While they still retain M83’s signature atmospheric reverberation, they seem to be built around more traditional song formulas. My spine stopped tingling a slight amount when these songs were played. The spooky impression that was overwhelming my soul became less intense. I was less impressed with unworldly beauty and more caught up in a “catchy” tune during their performance. But to me what makes M83 an amazing band is their utterly larger-than-life beauty and the atmosphere that invades my heart and strikes my emotions every time I listen to it. With some of their newer songs I think they traded a little bit of that grandeur for a more accessible, Western sound.

As unique and unforgettable of a band as M83 is on record, experiencing them live was wholly awe-inspiring. Their vast sound was tamed, brought down to Earth, and performed on a stage for a sold out crowd. It’s evasive simplicity and layers of sound were showcased and stood out in ways that a mere auditory experience can’t fully capture. As much of a feeling as you can get from an M83 record, you still can’t feel it as purely as when it’s being done right in front of you. Live there’s a transition of telepathic emotions that just can’t be captured on a static digital or analog format of any kind. The only way to really experience the enormity and essence of something like M83’s music is to truly experience it with all the senses available to you.

On Halloween 2011, we were lucky enough to do that.