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Alcest - Shelter

Posted on Thursday, 23 January 2014 | No Comments

In which one of underground metal's leading lights leaves the noise behind.
It's 2014, and we like to believe that we are all musical sophisticates. We will ourselves to become embodiments of the old Lyotard line on post-modern eclecticism, flitting between styles and cultures with consumate ease as we congratulate ourselves on our apparent enlightenment. Only, that's nonsense. We all still harbour our own individual prejudices and act accordingly. For my part, any mention of EDM, twerking or fucking, fucking ukeleles is usually enough to send me scurrying to the hills: I'm far from immune. What this does mean though is that the illusion that we live in some post-genre playground where everything is fair game and nothing is excluded is just that. There's still plenty that's off the menu for supposedly serious listeners and the more self-conciously cool, and top of the list comes that old whipping boy, heavy metal.

For all the talk of hipster metal bands (often revolving around black metal acts like Liturgy who left their corpse paint at point) , the relationship between indie and heavy metal remains at about the same level as that between twelve-year old boys and twelve-year old girls at a school dance: that is to say, largely non-existant. There have certainly been strides made to try and get the two to just bloody talk to each other a little bit. One of last year's big breakout records was Deafheaven's stunning second album Sunbather, a work whose intricate, intelligent and emotionally powerful blend of modern American black metal with elements of shoegaze and post-rock resounded with an audience far larger and more diverse than the typical extreme metal crowd (this site, for one, was a fan). It certainly has the potential to feel like a breakthrough moment, the start of an opening up where indie kids can learn to appreciate blastbeasts and screamed vocals - what elevates man above animal other than the ability to properly appreciate In the Nightside Eclipse, I ask you? - while the metal crowd gets a whole range of new aesthetic, sonic and thematic ideas to enjoy and play with.

One record alone is very rarely a genuine sub-cultural moment though. Enter stage left then Shelter, the fourth album from French band Alcest. Band leader Neige has been a prominent figure in many French metal acts, most notably black-metallers Peste Noire and post-rock/post-metal act Les Discrets, but Alcest has been his main vehicle since its formation in 2000. Largely a solo project studio-wise, Neige's work as Alcest has slowly advanced his very distinct, personal musical vision, which harnesses the melodic and emotional spaces of shoegaze and wields them to the technicality, force and fantastical elements of black metal (the last might be the most significant: Neige has often spoken in interviews of how Alcest is a vehicle for him to discuss mystical and spiritual experiences ). 2007's debut Souvenirs d'un autre monde was a classic of post-metal on arrival: 2010's Écailles de Lune brought the heavyness back and 2012's Les Voyages de L'Âme dug deeper into folk and progressive territory. On their fourth album however, Neige has finally taken the plunge and done what he's been hinting at for years, and released a full-on shoegaze album. No screaming, no hard riffs, and a nice easy tempo throughout. It'd almost be tempting to call it a sell-out, if Neige hadn't been so honest about his intentions in the run-up to the album - and if it wasn't likely to risk alienating much of the circuit Alcest came from.

Shelter is certainly not the first time a metal band has stepped outside of the box to play dress-up. For most acts though, these excursions feel like interesting diversions but little more - when Opeth delivered the soft-rock Damnation, it was little surprise that they returned to death metal soon after, for example. This instead, is a full on re-brand (just check the photo above, and compare that to any of their earlier press shots for proof), as becomes immediately apparant seconds into the record. Wings acts as a short introduction to the record, and its gentle choral sound bears more than a hint of Sigur Ros about it, before any possibility of this being anything other than a shoegaze record is blown away by the upbeat delayed guitar riff that ushers in lead single Opale. It's a song that, like much of the record, bears the DNA of Slowdive strongly, but here Neige pushes towards something far more strident and optimistic than anything Slowdive ever put out. It's a track that makes Neige's decision to completely move away from metal more understandable: if his quest is to try and depict and re-live his esctatic childhood visions, the bright, ringing sounds of major-key indie rock might be a more natural fit than the intricate gloom of black metal.

Speaking of Slowdive, guess who pops up for a guest spot other than Neil Halstead? Propping up the album's second half, Away is a subdued ballad whose hazy atmosphere could have sat comfortably on Slowdive's final release, the ambient Pygmalion. It's a song that also taps into a certain strain of melancholy British folk as well, with the strings provided by Amiina  and Halstead's deepened voice tipping the hat to Nick Drake. There are moments on the record though where the gentle trance is, if not exactly broken, then certainly disturbed in some way. L'Eveil des Muses is a slow-building post-rock number that packs a subtle force alongside its beauty - here, as with the closing epic Delivrance, the muscle honed after years of playing metal makes itself subtly known, with the guitar playing boasting an impact atypical amongst the softer end of shoegaze acts. It's subtle, but the understanding of dynamics that Neige has retained frequently lifts the material up from pastiche and gives the sound a far greater presence.

If there is a problem with Shelter, it is that at present, Naige's pure shoegaze material just doesn't boast the same level of imagination and indiviuality as the superb metal fusions he pioneered on the first two Alcest albums. It is a record that is undeniably in debt to its forefathers, and whilst it's certainly not without it's own spin on the sound - a far more dynamic mode of guitar playing, more melodically ascendent writing - some of the uniqueness of the Alcest of old has definetely vanished with this release. It is, however, an incredibly rich and engaging piece of work for those willing to put the time in: just because he's relying on old shoegaze templates doesn't mean that he doesn't produce some great music within them. 

The big question that hangs over this record however is a simple 'what's next?' Not all of his current fanbase is likely to stick around following this album if the sound proceeds in his direction, yet while there is a whole new audience of indie rock fans who would, if they heard it blind, probably love this record, there's a great deal of prejudice and assumptions that need to be overcome before that can quite happen. In this context, Shelter stands as a surprisingly brave artistic move: Neige is trusting on having enough of his current fanbase follow him down this new path, and on having enough new listeners come aboard as well. There is nothing here that woul alienate an indie audience, and a lot that they would love. But for a band that was a metal band up until now, and one that remains signed to a metal label, there's a hell of a lot of 'if's' attached to this gamble. Hopefully a guitar album of this quality will find the audience it deserves, and the tribes might come one step closer to coming together. Back at the school disco though, it's hard to tell who will blink first, if they even do.

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