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Live review: M83 with the L.A. Philharmonic at Disney Hall

March 8, 2009 |  6:10 pm

The electronica act gets overwhelmed by orchestration in an intriguing but unwieldy Disney Hall showcase.


The gauzy French electronica band M83 regularly admits to the big influence of schlocky '80s teen movies on its sound. So to contextualize its orchestral debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall on Saturday night, let's use a familiar metric: the cast of "The Breakfast Club."

The band's hazy breakout album "Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts" conjured Molly Ringwald -- moody and distant with occasional glimmers of flamboyance. Follow-up "Before The Dawn Heals Us" was M83's cocky and swaggering Emilio Estevez record, quickly amended with the sweet-hearted pop sugar of "Saturdays = Youth," the band's Anthony Michael Hall album.

But M83's collaboration with the Phil, the latest in an ambitious series of indie-orchestral pairings, was regrettably something of an Ally Sheedy moment -- an initially captivating experiment that grew so enamored with its own emotional tumult that the show sometimes felt a bit like detention.

Anthony Gonzalez, M83's sole permanent member, has long flirted with both arena-sized rock pomp and meticulous sound-sculpting. The possibilities in Gonzalez expanding on his ambient leanings with a full orchestra are enticing, and the early non-collaborative movements in the show hinted at a radical revision of the M83 template. Gonzales led the night with a solo performance of minimalist works from his low-key album "Digital Shades Volume 1," and the light spectacle of his modular synthesizer bank complimented the music's crackling, handmade melancholy that drew heavily from La Monte Young and William Basinski.

The L.A. Philharmonic, under conductor Julian Kuerti, countered with two savvy pieces that suggested fascinating ways of elaborating on those moods. Arvo Pärt's "Fratres" rode a deadpan repeating timpani figure while opposing string sections jockeyed for moments of transcendence, only to pull back in somber, steely reserve. Debussy's "La Mer" took an opposite, evocative route, veering from a menacing low-end growl to ephemeral chords suggesting light bouncing on the titular body of water.
Any of those three approaches could have capitalized on the opportunities for deconstruction in Gonzalez' widescreen blowouts. But M83 and the Phil instead used their orchestral bulk to overwhelm through melodramatic economies of scale. Half the pleasures of M83's albums are in the mixing, where dozens of similar-sounding synthesizers are shoved to the front, creating an uncanny sheet of digital noise.

But Disney Hall's articulate acoustics instead highlighted the thinness of Gonzalez's melodic ideas on sprawling set pieces like "Lower Your Eye- lids to Die With the Sun." The Phil (with arranger Sean O'Loughlin) compensated with sheer scope, tacking on a female choir, a lead soprano and kit drummer that felt overused and under-explored simultaneously.

From Gonzalez's end, he largely played a supporting role in the collaboration, augmenting the pieces with electronic squiggles and chopped vocal samples that never quite settled into the arrangements. So much was happening, yet it soon became clear what was missing. Rhythmic playfulness, some changes in mood, a sense of dramatic restraint or tension -- each ideas that Gonzalez, Part and Debussy otherwise know well. In other words, you don't best Judd Nelson by fighting him full-bore in the hallway, you win the girl by being smarter in the end.

-August Brown

Photo credit: Christina House / For The Times