[15 January 2014]
As an artist develops a greater understanding of how they envisage their music progressing, changes to their core creative values raise the possibility of alienating those who have followed from the beginning. History is beleaguered with examples of bands who have, because of misjudged experimentation, altered their sound too severely. The tragic results of which can cause them to scurry back to try salvage what brought them to the table in the first place. Often you will find yourself sympathizing with die-hard fans of an artist (especially if you are one of those diehards) who vaults recklessly into the unknown, untethered to their lineage, only to confuse and anger those who have sacrificed time and energy to chart their trajectory.
When the path of experimentation is too far outside of the band’s wheelhouse to work as part of their overarching oeuvre, you are left with albums like Celtic Frost’s Cold Lake, albums rejected like an unwanted, bastard child and buried ten feet deep by the band who gave birth to it. Such disastrous albums can be the death-blow to a career, depending on whether the band can recover the respect of their fan base (See: Celtic Frost’s monumental resurrection, Monotheist). But, on the other side of the coin, taking calculated creative risks with a selfish eye towards self-fulfilment is what galvanizes the arts and leads to some of the best, most daring and essential works. And sometimes the progression, whether it turns out to be a success or not, or whether the progression itself could even be called a “risk”, can be foretold from the beginning. It’s almost as if the listener can tell where the artist will travel to, long before the natural flow of said artist’s creativity whispers the course seductively in their ear.
For anyone who has paid close attention to France’s Alcest, you could almost hear where creativity’s call would eventually lead the band’s multi-instrumentalist/leader Stéphane “Neige” Paut. After time spent in the French black metal legion Peste Noire, Neige created Alcest as a means to try put to song the visions of the utopian dream-world that vividly visited him as a child. From the increasingly important 2005 EP, Le Secret—which followed the nascent 2001 demo, Tristesse Hivernale—to the near perfect encapsulation of vision-to-music that was 2007’s Souvenirs d’un autre monde, and two equally vivacious full-lengths that followed (2010’s Écailles de Lune and 2012’s Les Voyages de l’Âme), Neige did manage to create his own unique world—and his balancing of black metal’s opaque atmospherics with the velveteen coo of shoegaze and post-rock has paved a golden path to success for buzz-bands like Deafheaven.
The black metal side of Alcest’s realm took its call from Norway’s second wave, most explicitly the bitter, melancholic and even folkier side of Burzum’s repetitious austerity. It formed the foundation of the music and a basis to build from and explore the richest of melodies and the most soothing of heart-gripping harmonies. However, it always sounded as though Alcest wanted to vacate the world they had shaped, as if the vociferous nature of black metal’s nebulous black hole was a lethal threat to the serene atmosphere the trebly, honey-dewed shoegaze manifested. That’s why, when welcomed by Alcest’s fourth full-length, Shelter, it’s no surprise to find that Neige, who is backed by drummer Jean “Winterhalter” Deflandre, has removed all remaining ties to black metal—and metal in general—and fully embraced his love for shoegaze/post-rock in what can only be defined as a love letter to both ‘90s movements.
Recorded by Sigur Rós producer Birgir Jón Birgisson, Shelter’s sound is crystalline, which makes the woozy embrace of a song like “Opale” radiate brightly. The drums skitter and reflect across luminous rays of guitars which swell to an Explosions in the Sky-worthy release. Neige’s androgynous vocals entwine with the airy rush of harmonies, and “Opale” makes its mark through its melodic deftness after a rather non-descript intro, titled “Wings”.
It’s obvious Neige, although wanting to separate this album from the band’s past work, knew that black metal played an important role in offsetting the light, and he has really made sure that if this album is going to be all about bright melodies, the melodies have to be extremely striking. “Le Nuit Marche Avec Moi’s” shoegaze sparkles, yet holds an understated quality while remaining purposeful; especially the bass-lines that anchor the song. The somnambulant back-beat of “L’Eveil Des Muses”, together with the song’s glided harmonies and textural instrumentation, recalls Sigur Rós’s Ágætis byrjun. Meanwhile, the title track echoes bands like Lush, the Cranberries, and Slowdive, albeit with a distinctly Parisian feel. The sequencing of “Away”, featuring Slowdive’s own Neil Halstead on lead vocals, is a misstep, however, as the Britishness of the music, and of Halstead’s voice, is like receiving a cold bucket of water over your face while in mid-dream. It disrupts the flow, even though the song itself, with its aching final chorus, is quite moving.
Interestingly, it’s the songs that accentuate the post-rock aspects of Alcest’s sound which prove to be Shelter’s most realized, impactful and emotional. “Voix Sereines” is as perfect a post-rock song as you are ever likely to hear, as the weightlessness it imparts through its climatic release is genuinely wonderful. The song reaches This Will Destroy You/God Is an Astronaut/ Mogwai-levels of grace and grandiosity, and its affecting nature is only bettered by the ten minutes of the sublimely angelic closer, “Délivrance”.
Neige’s ever-growing confidence as a songwriter has undoubtedly influenced his songwriting decisions for Shelter. And to call this album a “progression” for Alcest may be a bit of a leap—and so too would be calling Shelter a “brave” album. Shelter is less of a progression and more of a magnification of the beauteous, gentile side of Alcest and a complete suppression of the blackness at the heart of the band. It’s an album that won’t shock fans of the band. One side winning the duel of duality was always a possibility, and it was always clear which side would win should Neige force himself to choose between the two.
The only real issue with Shelter is that, by removing the black metal side of their sound in its entirety and letting the sun shine in without any shadows, Alcest, for the first time, sound human. The magical air—drifting across a wide spectrum of emotion—that took the listener on a transcendent journey away from the harsh realities of this modern world is missing here. Therefore, what you hold in your hand is a typical shoegaze/post-rock album that, while beautifully constructed and breathlessly blissful, doesn’t recreate the same level of escapism for the listener that rendered Alcest’s past works so overwhelming and otherworldly.