Brian Eno’s ambient music was practical before anything else, thereby adding to the complexity that ambient music needs to function well on its own. Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978) expressed the futurism and optimism of flying and the endless sky while acknowledging its commercial aspects. Airports are places of trade, and Eno’s music can be — sometimes needs to be — tuned out at will. Context is key for ambient music.
So when M83 starts Digital Shades Vol. 1 with the track "Waves, Waves, Waves," featuring (you guessed it) wave sounds throughout the background, the aural connections feel forced. It’s as if Anthony Gonzalez thought, "Waves are soothing and invite meditation, so let me put in sounds of waves so that my listeners will be soothed and meditating." Subtlety is in short supply throughout the album, making his tracks seem like demands rather than suggestions. "Coloring the Void" uses dream-pop vocals — M83 is usually heavier than this — organ synths, and fuzz to invoke the hollow space of a gothic cathedral. Space and religious feeling are conflated, but again without the subtleties of the conversion process on display. The album closes with its longest track, an eight-minute crescendo titled "The Highest Journey" that forces a repeating piano theme into the listener’s space, precluding the music from being ambient.
The more personal "Sister (Parts 1 and 2)," "My Own Strange Path," and "Dancing Mountains" fare better because Gonzalez focuses on tonal shifts and changes over repetition, occasionally incorporating the rhythmic qualities of his work on 2003’s Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts (when Nicolas Fromageau was still in the band) and 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us. On Digital Shades Vol. 2, M83 should continue this more introspective ambient sound and leave behind such cliches of transcendence.