Bands that constantly search for evolution and change more often than not deserve admiration. They have to be prepared for backlashes too.
Alcest’s progression from the black metal roots of their 2001 demo ‘Tristesse Hivernale’ to their first record ‘Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde’ in 2007 was quite staggering, where they injected huge melodies and a wealth of shoegaze elements into their sound.
Consider the timing, this was a couple of years before the deluge of shoegaze-black metal, or blackgaze or whatever you insist on calling it, emerged and diluted the sound.
With that in mind, Neige’s project stayed head and shoulders above the rest with ‘Écailles de Lune’ and ‘Les Voyages De L’Âme’, two exhilarating records of gorgeously melodic and ambitious metal, and while both still clutched to remnants of black metal, it was becoming more and more clear that Neige was done with black metal.
“I think I’m getting tired with people making links with Alcest and black metal because for me it has nothing to do with black metal, really nothing,” he said in one interview after ‘Les Voyages De L’Âme’ came out. “Nothing is black in Alcest”.
This brings us to ‘Shelter’, an album that not only leaves black metal firmly in the rear-view mirror but to even call it a metal album in general is a bit of a stretch.
Perhaps it’s a little forced, and it’s a valid argument, but Neige has made his intentions to remove metal from Alcest quite clear, so in that regard ‘Shelter’ is predictable.
‘Les Voyages De L’Âme’ hinted at where he was going and when it was announced that ‘Shelter’ would be recorded in Sigur Rós’ Sundlaugin studio in Iceland and feature guest vocals from Slowdive’s Neil Halstead, one could gauge exactly what it would it sound like – a serene album, soaked in all things shoegaze, dream pop and post rock, with Sigur Rós and even Explosions In The Sky influences.
Anyone that says they’re shocked by this direction for Alcest, probably hasn’t listened to anything Neige has done since the demo.
The first glimpse we got of the new album was the single ‘Opale’, which is the first track proper of this album and, unsurprisingly, remains the standout song where glistening chiming guitars are the focal point, all the while Neige’s silken clean vocals gloss over the track creating that altogether hypnotic feel. If you’re looking for a song that’s emblematic of the whole album, this is it.
The closest thing to the band’s last two albums comes in the shape of ‘Voix Sereines’, where the track builds and builds to a dense wall of guitars, recalling older tracks like ‘Solar Song’ or ‘Autre Temps’, but that’s where the reminiscence ends.
‘L’Eveil Des Muses’ is when the first chink in ‘Shelter’s armour starts to show, where the formula begins to wear thin with samey riffs and recycled ideas ambling along aimlessly into a lull.
Although to Alcest’s credit it’s a minor dip in the album’s mid-section as it’s followed by the gorgeous sun drenched guitars of the title track, placing the album back on its trajectory again.
Slowdive’s Neil Halstead joins the band for penultimate track ‘Away’, lending his swooning, and unmistakeable, vocals to the mix. It works a treat and Halstead’s English vocals create an interesting break in the record’s flow but not a disruptive one before leading us into closer, ‘Délivrance’, a ten minute shimmering jewel that beautifully gathers together the album’s finest hypnotic and somnambulant moments.
‘Shelter’ is the exact album that Alcest has been itching to make, so to return to this point again – it’s predictable, maybe even a little bit contrived, but it’s no less impressive and memorable.
Granted, it treads very familiar paths and with bands like Whirr and Nothing or Braveyoung and Mono all working wonders with the shoegaze and/or post rock models, Alcest do run the risk of becoming another face in this crowd now.
Although to be fair, they will continue to stick out for the time being, and will continue to do so if the next record builds on this reasonably impressive foundation rather than relying on the old tools of the trade.
All in all, ‘Shelter’ is a victory for Alcest that Neige is probably extremely proud of. Is it Alcest’s best album though? No, but it’s the start of a whole new chapter for them and that’s the real story here.
3.7/5 – Jonathan Keane ::: 17/01/14