Written by: Max Szyc
Two years ago, Alcest posted a photo on their official Facebook page that showed frontman Stéphane Paut posing with Anthony Gonzalez, leader of French electronic outfit M83. While some were surprised, the majority of the commenters were ecstatic and demanded collaboration. Fast forward to earlier this month when Paut—more commonly referred to as Neige—contributed a playlist for heavy music magazine Decibel. Containing albums by artists such as alt-rock icons Smashing Pumpkins, shoegaze legends Slowdive, and contemporary indie popper Grimes, the playlist showcased a musician with an obsessive interest in off-kilter rock genres. Surely a man who hangs out with M83 and champions dream pop would make music of a similar ilk? Upon listening to Shelter, Alcest’s fourth studio album, listeners unfamiliar with the group will have their genre-suspicions confirmed, particularly when they hear the band’s influences matching up with their musical output. However, the story behind that output is anything but simple.
Believe it or not, the French outfit was once a trio that played raw black metal. On their 2001 demoTristesse Hivernale, Alcest’s style wasn’t very discernible from popular black metal bands like Darkthrone and Mayhem either musically
or visually. Unfortunately, this incarnation of the band wasn’t very good, which could’ve been a prominent thought amongst the bandmates as guitarist Aegnor and bassist Argoth quit that same year. This split was followed by years of inactivity until Neige resurfaced in 2005 with a self-recorded EP entitled Le Secret. Instead of atrocious production and roaring harsh vocals, listeners were greeted with a mix of ethereal singing and aggressive—yet highly melodic—guitars. While the mixing of black metal and shoegaze is rather commonplace today, it felt fresh at the time and the EP attracted attention as a result. Neige eventually recorded a full-length record, Souvenirs d’un autre monde, which successfully continued the style that began on Le Secret.
On each subsequent release, Neige—who has since been permanently joined by drummer Winterhalter—continued moving further away from metal, despite the ever-popular black metal tag remaining firmly latched onto the band. Neige himself described his vocals as a “maternal chant” that bears resemblance to what he’s heard in “the fairy land”, a world he allegedly had experiences with as a child. Listeners were seemingly treated to glimpses of this world in tracks like “Solar Song” off 2010’s Écailles de lune and“Autre temps” from 2012’s Les voyages de l’âme. These lush tracks proved that the group clearly wanted to make a jump and transform into a full-fledged shoegaze unit, but Alcest’s origins and popularity made a sudden transition impossible. So Neige bided his time, increasingly wore his newfound influences on his sleeve, and finally dropped Shelter, an album for which Neige has spent his career preparing.
Alcest was never a stranger to shoegaze, but Shelter sees the group shedding all aspects of their metallic origins. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything resembling black metal on here, as the record’s eight tracks
bear more of a resemblance to Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Rós than black metallers such as Satyricon. The resemblance isn’t too surprising considering that the album was recorded in the Icelandic band’s own studio. Despite the recording location and stripped-down sound, Alcest still manage to sound like Alcest, as the group has tampered with cleaner guitars and crescendo build-ups before. The main difference here is that the songs are significantly sparser and softer than ever before, and Neige’s clean vocals are considerably emphasized as a result. Tracks like “L’eveil des Muses” and “Voix Sereines” showcase his tremendous clean singing, revealing a musician who’s grown so confident in his abilities that he no longer needs to bury his voice under layers of obscured distortion.
Shelter could also be seen as a response to fans who thought the group was becoming too predictable with each release. Indeed, the band’s previous two albums, as great as they were, were a little too similar, as Alcest spent more time than they should have in their comfort zone. No Alcest fan can accuse Shelter of being too similar to previous efforts, but they can accuse it of being a little derivative and—unfortunately—boring. While the majestic “Opale”, brooding “La Nuit Marche Avec Moi”, and epic closer “Délivrance” stand out, the rest of the album is rather mellow and requires listeners to really be in the mood for 45 minutes of somber melodies. One can’t help but wish Alcest would turn up the volume at times, especially on some songs that tease heaviness. Numbers like the title track contain heavy riffs that function like ghostly apparitions: they appear briefly, tease you of possibilities, and then vanish immediately. It’s even more amusing to realize that the latest release by Sigur Rós, a band that never showed much interest towards adopting a heavy style, had more aggressive numbers than anything found here.
However, Shelter’s biggest fault is just how underwhelming it is overall. While Neige may have become obsessed with hypnotic rock music, his attempt at a major excursion in the style sounds no different than what the artists he’s emulating have been doing for decades. Even “Away”, despite featuring vocals from Neil Halstead of the aforementioned Slowdive, manages to be a rather bland ballad. Nevertheless, the album could be compared to Deafheaven’s popular Sunbather album; it’s not very different from what artists of the same breed have spent years doing, but it works as an introduction to this type of music. Indeed, traces of Alcest’s influences can be heard everywhere on Shelter, revealing to listeners what shoegaze is and what it can do. But despite this, it would be foolish to call the album anything but homage.
Even though it’s not very original, Shelter will still be enjoyed by those who liked the increasingly-poppy direction of Alcest’s later albums. Only time will tell if Neige will stand his ground and progress this new style further, or regress to the past and return to employing shrieking vocals alongside blackened metal riffs. There are infinite genres of experimental music out there, so let’s hope that Alcest’s next record goes beyond merely emulating them—just don’t be surprised if an M83 collaboration turns out to be the answer.