French metal enigma Niege, operating under the name Alcest set the metal world on fire back in 2007 upon release of the debut album “Souvenirs d’un autre monde”. Blending the harshness of black metal with the beautiful soundscapes of shoegaze, the album marked a new era in the atmospheric black metal niche, echoing in the genre since dubbed “Blackgaze”. It was drenched in melancholy, atmosphere and beauty, and became widely well known within the metal scene. It was an enigma, and as such it has been widely controversial, loved and embraced by some, while derided and reviled by others. This said there’s no denying how important an album it was however, and the same can be said of the even better follow up album “Écailles de lune”, which was a perfect amalgamation of the two styles.
Perhaps in a world post Sunbather, the brilliant 2o13 album from Deafheaven, the pinnacle of the “blackgaze” genre had already been reached, and as such Alcest’s follow up to the largely forgettable third album “Les voyages de l’âme”, Shelter, sees the band move away from the metal style almost completely, creating an album of pure dream-poppy shoegaze. Gone too for the most part is the melancholy atmosphere of the earlier albums, replaced by a calmer sound, creating an atmosphere of contentment throughout. Gone for good are the screams, with Neige’s singing voice being the only vocal style, save a guest appearance. Opening minute long piece “Wings” begins with string instruments building up to a climax, kicking into the song “Opale”, one of the best songs on the album. It’s beautifully soft and bright, like a cold sunny morning, with great vocals from Niege, all in French of course. Moments of reverb build up throughout this track, and indeed the rest of the album, bearing more than a passing similarity to the legendary shoegaze group Slowdive. “La nuit marche avec moi” continues on in this vein being dreampop like and reverb drenched, while “Voix sereines” has less of the wall of sound vibe of the openers, and begins with some beautifully picked chord arpeggio progressions with more strings behind it, with Neige’s soft vocals following along for most of the song, before building up to a beautiful layer of shoegazey distortion over it all. It’s another beautiful piece, and is one of the best ] ones on the album. While less upbeat than the two before, it is by no means melancholic, and is extremely relaxing.
The album starts to fall apart somewhat at this point though, the middle tracks are a little less engaging and struggle to hold the listeners interest. L’eveil des muses is a lot like the previous track, and while still being half decent, its nowhere near as good, especially with the beauty of “Voix Serienes fresh in the mind.” Shelter fares a little better, being a bit more upbeat and atmospheric, picked chord patterns on the guitar being nice, but it grows dull over it’s five minute length. The worst track is definitely Away”, which actually confirms the obvious Slowdive influence, by having their singer Neil Halstead performing guest vocals on the song. While this might have excited Slowdive fans , it somehow manages to be the weakest track on the album, and there’s not a lot going on of interest there. Neil’s vocals have gotten something of a boring quality in the intervening years since Slowdive’s 1995 split, and the music around isn’t very interesting either, smacking of bland indie rock, with the strings simply not doing anything interesting enough to make up for it. These three songs were not awful, they’re are fairly decent, but just that. Decent isn’t good enough for Alcest.
However, closing track Deliverance makes up for this, over its ten minute length, it builds from slow and quiet, to brighter and more energetic, layered extremely well with strings, reverb, picked guitar, and calming vocals. It’s a perfect album closer, and even with it’s long length it doesn’t seem to drag at all, which “L’eveil des muses” did in half the time.
The album seems to be good music for walking on a cold sunny morning, it has that kind of an atmosphere. Upbeat, but not overly so, more an atmosphere of contention. To me because of the weaker middle part of the album, it simply seems that Alcest want to approach the pure shoegaze style but are having a few reservations of letting go of all the metal stylings of previous releases, and don’t embrace it fully. It’s almost like they didn’t have enough ideas to sustain the whole length of the album, as if they felt too limited trying to write one style, and are a little stuck in the box. Overall it feels like a band still going through a transition, while not having quite gotten where they wanted to be yet. It is a decent effort, a signficant improvement upon “Les voyages de l’âme” and one gets the impression that their next album will fully realise this style and be something of a masterpiece. Alcest fans should definitely still give this a go, but should expect a change in style and go into it with an open mind. Opale, Voix Serenes and Deliverance are all incredible and fit alongside anything else in the Alcest discography. If the rest were as good, then this album would be incredible.
Listen to Opale: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADIEAW65H5o
Catch them this January and February, touring Europe with Hexvessel and Fauns.