Of all the guests M83’s Anthony Gonzalez brought out during his Sunday night Hollywood Bowl set, he was clearly most excited about Zelly Meldal-Johnsen’s guest vocals.
Zelly, the precocious grade-school daughter of M83’s producer and multi-instrumentalist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, came out to perform her monologue from the French/L.A. synth-rock combo’s song “Raconte Moi une Histoire,” about a magic frog that makes everything appear backward.
Afterward, she danced with each band member and scampered offstage to the biggest applause of the night. It was adorable.
Zelly’s turn showed the real aim behind M83’s wide-eyed music -- to use today’s most dramatic electronic instruments to evoke a kid’s wonder. With an array of modular synths, dream-pop guitars, ethereal vocals and the full weight of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra behind him, Gonzalez made a claim for M83 as one of the most sonically ambitious bands in Los Angeles today.
Yet he’s also one of its most guileless songwriters, one truly in thrall to youth and its daydreams. On Sunday, that streak of awe occasionally undercut his more grown-up composer’s ambitions. But for a band that deals only in huge sounds and emotions, this was obviously the biggest night of Gonzalez’s musical life.
The show was M83’s second collaboration with a major L.A. orchestra (in 2009, the group performed with members of the L.A. Phil at Disney Hall). Back then, M83 was a rising indie act, with an ear for sheets of white noise that crossed into contemporary experimental music.
In between, Gonzalez wrote the platinum-selling single “Midnight City,” co-scored the Tom Cruise sci-fi flick “Oblivion” and played top slots at festivals such as Coachella and the FYF Fest. What a difference those four years have made -- he can now get 18,000 fans to leap to their feet at the first blips of that dance-noir single.
First, however, he made them sit and listen. After an opening set from like-minded synth-rockers Phantogram, the first two segments, revamps of “In the Cold I’m Standing” and “Intro,” leaned almost totally on the orchestra to re-create the originals’ filtered pings and waves of ambiance. It was a clever nod to M83’s use of pop synths to get at more complex new-music ideas. But it was also just about the last time one could clearly hear the orchestra for the rest of the night.
Making acoustic instruments cut through racks of electronics and a full rock band is a tough go for any mix engineer. But for most of the set, the Bowl Orchestra (under conductor and M83 collaborator Joseph Trapanese) added a bit more tension and texture.
To M83’s credit, these songs had plenty of both. The vocals from L.A.’s Morgan Kibby on “We Own the Sky” felt especially tingly amid the nighttime vistas of Cahuenga Pass. “Wait” owned up to M83’s Pink Floyd debts in grand fashion, with dips and dives of electronics made tender by the band’s acoustic guitar strums.
When the orchestra went tacet on tunes such as the club-bouncy “Sitting” and the U2-chiming “Reunion,” the band didn’t lose any heft. Gonzalez even proved himself a newly confident vocalist on “Steve McQueen,” where his eager howls made him, for the first time, feel like a frontman and not just a project-mastermind.
The only lulls were on a few heavy numbers such as the set-closing "Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun," whose orchestral sweep didn't quite have the melodies to match it. The reverse was true for “Midnight City," which has such a rousing, defining synth melody that it felt criminal for the orchestra to go quiet for it. Why collaborate like this if you’re not going to find a new way to present your biggest song?
Visuals are a huge part of this M83's presentation, and they mixed some stunning stage light work with nerdy video art of slow-motion kissing and hawks flying and Hubble telescope photos and pre-teen space shamans. But Sunday’s show secured M83 at the front of today’s progressive music culture, where a band can use ideas from ‘90s indie vets such as Medicine (whose Brad Laner made a cameo), modern electronic dance music and serrated string arrangements in service of going as big and Romantic as possible.
Gonzalez will hopefully use his fierce musical mind to deal with harder, adult ideas about life and death on future records. But as a final sendoff to the heady youth of his band, Sunday’s show was, quite often, everything that Zelly and the psychedelic frog promised.