French duo Alcest—drummer Winterhalter and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Neige—are commonly cited as pioneers of blackgaze (a mixture of black metal and shoegaze), and for good reason. Aside from 2014’s almost entirely gentle Shelter, each of their past efforts, going as far back as 2005’s Le Secret, delivered a precise and irresistible balance of guttural chaos and transcendent atmospheres. It may take a few deep listens to fully appreciate all of their mesmerizing subtleties, but they’re always there, and the same can be said about Spiritual Instinct. The follow-up to 2017’s Kodama, this sixth studio LP is less overtly catchy and dynamic than its predecessor. Yet, it still packs quite an emotional and sonic punch from start to finish.
Spiritual Instinct is their first release on Nuclear Blast, and Neige sees it as “a very cathartic record”, adding, “It’s darker than usual, and heavier.” As for its title, he says, “Life can be harsh, but it’s important to stay connected with your essence. If answers exist, you might be more likely to find them within you.” As always, the album is harsh and heavenly at once, often allowing seemingly impenetrable dissonance to give way to divine self-reflection amidst the sharp riffs, bleak growls, pummeling percussion, angelic harmonies, and blissful soundscapes. Few fans will deem it Alcest’s magnum opus; however, there’s enough here to satisfy expectations and further fortify the pair as masters of their craft.
“Les Jardins De Minuit” (“The Gardens of Midnight”) kicks things off with the anticipated blend of tribal rhythms, piercing guitar notes, and falsetto chants. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Alcest special, as it simultaneously evokes feelings of despair and relief. Soon after, the track transforms into a flurry of captivating disarray as crunchy chords, frenzied drumming, hellish screams, and interlocking chants provide a mystical experience. Like much of their work, the magic doesn’t come from especially complicated music; rather, it comes from how the bright and dark components complement each other to yield a greater whole. Luckily, this holds for the rest of Spiritual Instinct.
The next song, “Protection”, conveys Neige’s inner doubts and exhaustion with equal disarray, yet its central motif is even more gripping. In other words, it’s less varied but more impactful than the opener. From there, “Sapphire” gives Winterhalter the spotlight via some inventive syncopation shifts, all the while channeling the melodic agency that makes Alcest’s softer and more fragile moments so arresting. “L’Île Des Morts” (“Island of the Dead”) is perhaps the most evenly poised of them all in terms of heavy and light elements, as clean singing cascades over the same discordant foundation for most of the runtime. That said, the latter half also incorporates a quieter and more cosmic reprieve before settling back into its fury.
Relatively fancy and dense guitar strums match with shimmering tones and elegant sentiments as “Le Miroir” (“The Mirror”) begins. Fortunately, that sublime trajectory is mostly upheld until the end, conjuring the wonderful warmth of Shelter and ranking as one of Alcest’s best compositions in years. As for the closing title track—which tackles Neige’s “battle with existential anxiety”—it’s the culmination of all that’s come before it; as such, it’s a celebration of everything that makes Alcest singular in one impeccably composed package, and it certainly leaves you wanting more.
Spiritual Instinct doesn’t necessarily top Kodama or bring anything particularly new to the Alcest formula. Instead, it serves as a seamless reaffirmation of purpose and potential. Everything fans could want—and everything that makes blackgaze stand out—is here, and Alcest have undoubtedly crafted one of their most unified and significant sequences to date. Like its predecessors, it takes some time to peel back all of the layers; once you do, though, you’ll find it to be superbly capricious, self-assured, and meaningful.