To be honest, I’m surprised Alcest haven’t been featured in a Subaru commercial already. If that’s a stretch, it’s at least a near-certainty we’ll be hearing them on a movie trailer for some coming-of-age romantic comedy. Regardless whether this prediction is meant to be taken in jest (It’s not), it’s pretty clear that Alcest have, by this point, drifted away entirely from the metal sphere. While Les voyages de l’âme suggested that the band’s frontman Neige was more inclined towards the shoegazey end of the so-called ‘blackgaze’ fusion he’s said to have pioneered, Shelter is proof of the band’s completed shift. For all the discussion and debate this transformation has caused however, surprisingly little has changed in the band’s atmosphere and approach. Reverb-laden guitars, fragile vocals and a Romantic longing for childlike essence are all familiar ideas forAlcest. Shelter holds the fort for the most part, but save for a handful of (admittedly brilliant) standout moments, this album does little to compete with the excellence of the first two.
I might describe the work of Alcest as ‘dreamlike’. Not surreal or twisted by any means, but rather the sort of innocent atmosphere you might find in a child’s storybook. For about as long as Alcest‘s existed as anything but a demo black metal outfit, they’ve sought to unlock that Romantic notion of inner-looking melancholy in their listeners. On a more technical level, their fusion of black metal and traditional shoegaze aesthetics has since earned them a legion of imitators. While it’s certainly surprising to have seen them turn their backs so absolutely on a style they’re said to have invented (or at least popularized), the move into undisputed shoegaze territory hasn’t resulted in too much of a practical change in sound. After all, even at their most intense, Alcest were never ‘particularly’ metal to begin with.
If anything’s really evolved since the third album, it’s the emotional tone. Particularly on Écailles de lune, Alcesthave been caught in a tug-of-war between feelings of sad melancholy and purely optimistic hope. Although the final decision isn’t as absolute and one-sided as the metal-shoegaze debate, it’s clear that Alcest have taken a turn for the bright and cheery. If the album cover’s any indication, the darkness has been swept away; whatever hints of sadness remain are left as suggestions at best. The much-talked about single “Opale” is an example of happiness at its most pure; shimmering guitars, lively leads and gentle vocals convey a rare sense of carefreeness that even Alcest have never before explored. The trite video, which may be summarized as a pair of amorous teens chasing each other around with neon paints, highlights the sweetness to the point of diabetes-inducing saccharine, but the song itself is quite solid.
Let it be known I have nothing against happiness or optimism in music, but listening to Shelter as a whole, I recall the perennial debate whether or not great art is possible without unhappiness. The general quality of songwriting is roughly consistent with “Les voyages de l’âme“, but the streamlined emotional palette leavesShelter feeling a little empty. Looking at “Opale”, for example: where the cheerful leads may have been counterpointed with a tinge of sadness on past albums, there’s scarcely depth beyond the surface impression. It can be said that others (like “La nuit marche avec moi”) lend themselves better to emotional interpretation, butShelter is largely defined by surface-value cheer and atmosphere.
The clear exception (and emotional highlight) here is the ten minute closing track. “Délivrance” has been earned some well-deserved praise individually, and having seen Alcest close off a live set late last year with it, I can confidently call it one of the best tracks they have ever done. Where most of Shelter sounds like a pleasantly typical shoegaze record, “Délivrance” achieves the sort of transcendental beauty I knew Alcest were capable of. It may take a while to get going, but this mini-epic is structured with purpose and intention. Building gradually, it eventually erupts into a quasi-choral idea that falls nothing short of being gorgeous.
On the topic of voices, Neige’s clean vocals have always been fragile, but I have always thought that sense of vulnerability worked well for the tone they were going for. On Shelter however, his voice too-often crosses the boundary into whininess. The voice itself hasn’t changed much since the debut, but there’s the impression Neige has become a little too confident with his vocals. Where they may have been comfortably muddled in the mix on the debut, they now come front and center relative to all else. Even when I may have found myself annoyed by his voice on past albums, the voice took shelter in the waves of distortion and effects. Neige has little such protection on Shelter; he can still be praised for having a relatively distinctive voice all things considered, but the static elfishness does little to sway me. On a tangential note, it’s a shame Neige decided to let go of his harsh vocals; I’m by no means prejudiced against a non-metal Alcest, but his shrieks were among the most impressive and atmospheric ingredients the band had to offer. His relatively mediocre clean vocals could have even worked here, but I’d have hoped to hear them play a more subdued role. It should also be noted that Neil Halstead (ofSlowdive, Neige’s favourite band if I’m not mistaken) offers his voice on the song “Away”. Maybe you need to be an existing fan of Slowdive to appreciate the guest spot, but I think his performance sounds terrible. It’s no doubt a great honour for Neige to have one of his musical icons contributing to his work, but Halstead’s low-register croon doesn’t translate well here.
To put it briefly, it generally feels like Alcest have stayed their natural course with this one. Even if the stylistic evolution is noticeable, the shift towards shoegaze isn’t surprising. Shelter sounds remarkably pretty, and it’s well-executed, but I’m not hearing a lot of inspiration amidst the reverberated guitars and lilting voices. Am I condemning Shelter for being ‘too happy’? Not at all- Anathema‘s latest couple of albums are even cheerier than this, and they move me plenty. In most respects Alcest have crafted a solid album here, but it pales in comparison to what they’ve done in the past. In that sense, I cannot help but feel disappointed.
03. La Nuit Marche Avec Moi
04. Voix Sereines
05. L’Eveil Des Muses
* Stéphane “Neige” Paut – all instruments, vocals
* Jean “Winterhalter” Deflandre – drums
* Neil Halstead – vocals on 7