03. La Nuit Marche avec Moi
04. Voix Sereines
05. L’Éveil des Muses
Let’s get the obvious and overstated out of the way: Shelter is in no way a metal album. Over the course of the French blackgaze/post-metal hybrid’s career, Alcest (i.e. Neige) has delicately straddled the line between black metal and heavy music’s touchstones and airy, cinematic soundscapes more akin to the likes of Sigur Rós or classic dream pop/shoegaze acts like Slowdive and Lush. Since the initial release of Le Secret in 2005, Neige has gradually pushed the project further away from its harsher roots to the point that his previous album, the sweeping Les Voyages De L’Âme, featured very little in the way of raspy screams and massive distortion in favor of clean tones and beautiful melodies.
So here’s Shelter, with its sun-bleached artwork, music videos featuring a plethora of brightly-colored pigments and a couple straight out of an American Apparel ad, and no sign of anything that could be categorized as black, harsh, or heavy. But these artistic choices feel less like a dramatic course change than an almost inevitable conclusion to a linear progression, or at most a slight bearing in direction that finally hopped off the dividing line between metal and pop and firmly picked a side. Predictably, this decision has divided the fanbase and has driven the latest identity crisis for an already very niche subgenre, particularly in the wake of another blackgaze group’s mainstream recognition, Deafheaven. But questions of whether the direction of Shelter is inherently good or bad feel misdirected, or at least not the most important. The real question about the album is, stripped of all of Alcest’s heaviness and tension between its darker and lighter sides, is there enough substance left for an entire album of compelling material?
By-and-large, the answer to that question is yes. Tracks like lead single ‘Opale,’ ‘La Nuit Marche avec Moi,’ and title track ‘Shelter’ possess an immense freewheeling energy, the kind that makes you want to hop in your car, drive with the windows down, run off to grand places, and do equally grand things. It’s beautiful and invigorating music that lends itself easily to comparisons to the aforementioned Sigur Rós (not coincidentally, the album was recorded at the Icelandic enclave’s studio by longtime Sigur Rós producer Birgir Jón Birgisson), and they manage to build off of their positive energy enough to keep things interesting throughout.
The album’s more anthemic moments are balanced nicely by more introspective tracks like slow burners ‘Voix Sereines,’ ‘L’Éveil des Muses,’ and ‘Délivrance,’ which dip briefly into heavier post-rock territory that calls to mind other cinematic instrumentalists like Mono before building up to their epic conclusions. The largely acoustic ‘Away’ is a standout for its dulcet vocals (sung by Slowdive’s Neil Halstead no less), transcendent chorus, and perfectly understated string arrangement (performed beautifully by Icelandic string quartet Amiina). The entire album is designed to lift you up and wash over you with its dreamy and joyful overtures while creating just enough contrast in its heavier moments to prevent the whole thing from becoming too staid and lightweight.
For all that Neige does right on Shelter though, the album’s strengths are also the source of its weaknesses, or at least its limitations. The cinematic pop of the album’s songs do well in creating a sense of expansive journey, but compared to the immense scope of Alcest’s previous work, the musical pallet of Shelter feels far more constrained and overly indebted to 90’s shoegaze. I didn’t find myself necessarily missing the moments of harsh vocals, but the darkness, intensity, and mystery that gave previous songs more weight and made the moments of delicate beauty all the more striking in comparison is utterly missing here. The album also lacks rhythmic diversity, comprised almost entirely by simple mid-tempo beats and barely making use of drummer Jean “Winterhalter” Deflandre’s nimble and steady hand behind the kit.
It’s a shame that Neige seemingly felt the need to dial back some of the more compelling aspects of his body of work for the sake of more even-keeled immediacy. Ultimately, the problems with Shelter aren’t necessarily the results of anything in particular wrong with the music itself. Shelter hits all its marks when it has to. But by shifting the project so far away from its darker and more adventurous side, Neige lowered the artistic bar for himself just ever so much. If Neige intends to continue pressing in this direction, let’s hope that he finds a way to regain that adventurous spirit and further expands Alcest’s musical horizons rather than diluting them.
Alcest’s Shelter gets…