[11 May 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Twenty years ago, nobody would have even considered the notion that it might be a good idea to combine shoegaze and extreme metal. Back then, both worlds were strictly divided. Shoegaze appealed more to the college rock crowd, despite the fact that albums such as My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Swervedriver’s Mezcal Head had the kind of towering guitar sounds that could appeal to metal fans. Conversely, although many were turned off by the primal screaming of Norwegian black metal, artists like Emperor and especially Burzum excelled at creating the kind of atmospherics that shoegaze bands similarly strived for. However, with a new generation of more open-minded musicians coming of age over the last ten years, that’s all changed dramatically as a wave of talented metal acts have embraced the dense, hypnotic, and often dreamy sounds of shoegaze. From black metal bands like Weakling, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Altar of Plagues, to broader sounding bands like Caïna, Nadja, the dearly missed Angelic Process, and the great Jesu, it’s a sound that’s drawn listeners from both sides of the fence.
The shoegaze influence been especially divisive in the metal world, as skeptics question whether the languorous, meditative, and (gasp) pretty sounds of “post metal” or “metalgaze” (what would a metal trend be without obsessive categorization?) goes completely against what the genre is all about, but for those willing to take the music for what it is and not worry about its credibility, they’re opening themselves to some very exciting music. Arguably the best of that recent wave is France’s Alcest. A solo project of musician and former Peste Noire guitarist Stéphane “Neige” Paut, Alcest dipped its toe furtively into that crossover sound on the admirable 2005 EP Le Secret, but it was 2007’s shimmering Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde that captured the attention of many. Pastoral, innocent, and devastatingly beautiful, that album gracefully walked a line between shoegaze, dreampop, and atmospheric black metal in a way that nobody had yet pulled off. Its DIY aesthetic and thin production leaned towards underground metal, but its melodies sounded like the second coming of Slowdive.
Nearly three years later, Neige has returned with the much-anticipated follow-up, and not only does Écailles de Lune show significant improvements in songwriting, performance, and production compared to Souvenirs, but it’s much darker in tone, and it just might end up being the stronger record in the long run. Neige’s ambition is apparent immediately, as the album kicks off with the ambitious title track. It might be divided in two, but “Écailles de Lune” parts one and two essentially work as a massive, adventurous, 20 minute suite in which all of Neige’s influences don’t so much collide as interweave elegantly. “Part I” starts off as a straightforward melancholic metal piece before abruptly shifting into full-on dreampop mode at the two minute mark, insistent riffing and drumming giving way to the most textured, ethereal arrangement we’ve heard from Alcest to date, and Neige’s gentle falsetto showing just how much his singing has improved since the last record. “Part II”, on the other hand, is reminiscent of the darker tones of Le Secret, the first three minutes an exercise in melodic black metal (complete with screamed vocals) before subtly giving way to acoustic guitar and a much more contemplative direction, culminating in a haunting coda. Neige’s French lyrics provide even more insight into this beguiling record, as he muses poetically about the sea, at one point singing lines that translate, “I would like to fearlessly disappear under the floods…/ To let the cold currents purify my thoughts, immobilize my flesh / To find sleep at the bottom of the ocean”.
As exceptional as the first two tracks are, that’s not the only place where the album’s strengths lie. “Percées de Lumière” toys expertly with the dynamic between light and shade, alternating between anguish and pensiveness with ease, Neige’s two vocal personae complementing each other instead of battling for space. The album’s final 13 minutes shifts full-bore into shoegaze mode, and while the similarities to Slowdive, early Ride, Lush, and My Bloody Valentine are too obvious to ignore, it’s never a distraction. Neige’s layered vocals on “Solar Song” are downright beautiful, their incomprehensibility not unlike the Cocteau Twins’ best work. Meanwhile, the quiet and tender “Sur L’Océan Couleur de Fer” ends things on an achingly lovely note, just Neige’s voice and his undistorted guitar glimmering like moonlight off the sea.
Aided tremendously by Les Discrets (and former Amesoeurs bandmate) Winterhalter on drums, who adds more range than Neige has had on previous Alcest recordings, Écailles de Lune exudes a level of confidence that’s remarkable whether viewing it from an indie rock or metal standpoint. In addition, it’s an album where there’s no language barrier whatsoever, its appeal universal. Neige’s world is one of no genre restrictions, and he beckons us to dive in without prejudice. This time around, however, mind the undertow.