When I first encountered French metal outfit Alcest, my reaction was similar to when I first listened to Liturgy: “This can’t be black metal.” I’m certainly no black metal purist (I’m not even that drawn to the genre), but records like Souvenirs d’un autre monde and Écailles de Lune flew in the face of how I had experienced black metal. The music was too beautiful to be black metal. That’s not to say it isn’t a good genre, but it’s definitely better known for its harsh, dark, and abrasive aspects rather than its texture. Alcest is definitely a textural band, due in large part to its roots in shoegaze, but it’s not really an abrasive or even dark band. Even when Alcest began to demonstrate typical black metal traits (such as part two of the title track on Écailles de Lune), it was still quite different from much of much of the requisite elements of the genre. Yet, whenever Alcest is discussed, black metal always comes up. Though markedly different from the Brooklyn-based Liturgy, Alcest share with that band the ability to turn the genre into something that isn’t behest to the worst parts of its controversial history.
The band’s unique take on black metal can be seen on the most superficial level: the band’s song and album titles. Black metal is a genre littered with philosophical album titles, many of which are in Latin (The best of these might be Deathspell Omega’s Fas – Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum). These titles invoke the texts of religious liturgies, albeit in a counter-interpretive way given black metal’s well-known roots in Satanic and occultic worldviews. The works of Alcest, in contrast, evoke a much more personal spirituality; take, for instance the band’s newest release Les Voyages De L’Âme, which in English translates to “Journeys of the Soul”. The deep personal and spiritual aspects seem to be consciously distancing Alcest from the darker aspects of black metal towards something more divine, whatever that might be. It’s clear from the group’s output thus far that Alcest isn’t trying to be a black metal band and, yet, for some reason, that genre is a consistent talking point in terms of the band’s overall output. If that’s the case, then Alcest could perhaps be called “post-black metal”. But given that the critical scene is already dense with superfluous and unnecessary genre names, I’ll go ahead and forego the need to label the band in that fashion. Needless to say, the sound of Alcest is one that represents a wholly unique mixture of metal and shoegaze, and Les Voyages De L’Âme is a masterful demonstration of that sonic equation.
Alcest, the project of multi-instrumentalist Neige (who is accompanied by Winterhalter on drums) is far from mainstream metal; the textural and at times ambient components of the band’s sound require something more than a casual listen. That said, Les Voyages De L’Âme is by far the most accessible of the band’s output thus far. Yes, Neige is still singing in French, but the indecipherable quality of My Bloody Valentine’s lyrics, which were sung in English, didn’t keep them from gaining the legendary status they have now, and it should be no different for Neige. My decent understanding of French allowed me to catch a word or a lyric on occasion, but for the most part, Neige’s lyrics are meant to be viewed as another texture in the album’s stratified sonics rather than as poems to be divorced from their musical context. At times, however, Neige’s vocals aren’t lost in the haze of distortion; on the gorgeous album opener and lead single “Autre Temps”, his voice is given a prominent placing. The language barrier (if one could even call it that) shouldn’t be a reason to avoid listening to this record; if anything, the record is all the more beautiful for it.
Like Neige’s vocals, the album for the most part stays firmly in the “shoegaze metal” genre that Alcest has been refining since Souvenirs. The harshest the album gets is on “Là où Naissent les Couleurs Nouvelles” and “Faiseurs De Mondes”, and even there, the harsh vocals don’t overpower the melodic guitar lines. And when the album takes the time to come up with an actual guitar riff in the coda to album closer “Summer’s Glory”, it’s not a headbanging sort of riff but rather a triumphant one. (And triumphant it is; when most of the album’s guitars sound like walls of sound rather than individual riffs, the strums of that riff are quite powerful). While this is a “heavy record” to some extent, the album is so occupied with peaceful, beautiful interludes involving acoustic guitar and choral parts (such as the breathtaking opener to “Beings of Light”) that to classify the record as “metal” is but to recognize one aspect of the album’s sonic capabilities. Alcest effortlessly draw from multiple styles and as a result the band is not easy to pigeonhole into one genre.
Like most records, this one is possible to analyze with critical scrutiny. But in truth, all of the preceding paragraphs don’t do Alcest justice. As the title of the album implies, this is a highly spiritual recording, one that that demands a close listen not just in the intellectual sense but also in the personal sense as well. It’s unlikely that anyone truly listening to this album will have a merely cerebral experience. There is a great power to this music that cannot be ignored, regardless of whether one is spiritual or not.
As Neige continues to mature as an artist, trying to figure out what exactly Alcest “is” will likely become a more difficult task. The band is no doubt progressing towards something great, but in doing so, their identity is moving further away from the conventional features of the genres of which they draw influence. Still, the Socratic fallacy applies to Alcest as it does to anything else: One doesn’t need to know the definition of something to know what that something is. Ever since the captivating Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde, Neige has showed that Alcest was a musical project truly special, and with this album, he isn’t giving much reason for us to think otherwise. Les Voyages De L’Âme is an excellent addition to the Alcest’s already prodigious output, and it establishes itself early on as one of 2012’s finest metal releases.