Friday 8 November 2019

Alcest - Spiritual Instinct (2019)

Country: France
Style: Blackgaze
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
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I haven't listened to enough Alcest but I've liked what I've heard thus far and I like what I hear on this, their sixth album, too. They started out as a black metal band but then they veered into shoegaze territory, an unusual choice but one which seemed to be a natural evolution for them. In between and after, they've merged the two genres to effectively define blackgaze. I say "they" because they are a band nowadays, a gentleman named Winterhalter handling the drums and percussion, but for most of their history they were one man, who goes by the name of Neige, and he does everything else.

This certainly fits well in the blackgaze genre, with half of the album full of blastbeats and dissonance and the other slow and ethereal like the post-punk era that influenced shoegaze. Michael Nelson of Stereogum described Le Secret, Alcest's pioneering 2005 EP, as being "like a Cocteau Twins/Burzum collaborative split". This plays pretty close to that description, although the alternation of those styles has gradually become a true merger of them, so that the Cocteau Twins parts and the Burzum parts can and often do play out at the same time.

For instance, the guitars that follow the killer bass in opener Les jardins de minuit are both somehow both harsh and melodic at the same time, and the sweet voice that soars over it all adds more melody. Even when it ramps up into hyperspeed, it never loses that melody, so that songs feel rather like welcoming danger, like a tray of cookies laced with cyanide brought to you by your new neighbour.

The other tracks follow suit. L'ile des morts kicks off with a pulsing synth beat and harsh guitars at speed. There are points where the speed takes over but the melody is still there in the vocals. I should add that those vocals are clean here almost exclusively. While the blastbeats and harsh guitars of black metal are frequent, there are precious few shrieks. Protection may be the only track that really goes there with a couple of moments behind clean vocals on Sapphire.

My favourite here is surely Le miroir, which does all this with emphasis. It starts out with a glorious drum build, then shifts into delicate intricacy, not unlike a Wishbone Ash track. It almost turns into a melodic Iron Maiden instrumental section, but slowed down for effect and staged theatrically. A wall of darkness, hovering from those initial drums, rises up behind it as it develops, but a soft voice floats over too. What results is less a song and more a sort of sonic sculpture in the vein of Shriekback or the Cocteau Twins, hurled out there as a gift to the gods of the dark. Even the patient but decidedly vicious single cymbal clashes are delightful.

That's a fair description of the rest of the album too. The biggest problem for me was how it was a delight to listen to but a bear to try to focus on. I had this playing for three or four days so it's become an old friend, but even now it mostly plays like a forty minute piece of music rather than the six individual tracks that make up that running time.

It's especially hard to focus on the longest song, L'île des morts, which is a nine minute textbook on dynamics. None of these songs are short, Sapphire the shortest at five minutes even, but they're the usual sort of length for an Alcest album. Looking back, I only see one track, Délivrance on the 2014 album Shelter, that exceeds ten minutes and that only by six seconds. I left this wondering what an actual forty minute Alcest track might sound like.

I doubt it would sound too much different to this, though with a little more control in the structuring of its dynamics. And that's not a bad thing. This is wonderfully evocative stuff, whether we see it as a single album or a set of half a dozen tracks, and it tells me that I need to go back and pay a lot more attention to those previous five albums and some of the other material that peppers Neige's back catalogue.

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