When Alcest released their 2014 Shelter, there were many dissenting voices among their fans. Originally, it was possible to easily disregard these as the usual detractors of any band which tries to change their sound; we might like to paint metal as a progressive and open genre but we have our fair share of conservatives. However, as further listenings to the album opened up understanding, it was felt by many more that indeed, something was off. It’s not that Shelter was a bad album but there was something, some power that Alcest had in their earlier works. By “earlier works” we do not mean their classical, black metal, heavy albums. We’re not joining those who denounce blackgaze or even the dream pop that Alcest had started making. On the contrary, we love those sounds and were therefore disappointed with Shelter, which felt more like lip service to the power those genres can hold.
Luckily, it appears that a second chance is at hand, in the form of a separate, and yet musically linked, artist called Sylvaine. Hailing from Norway, she is the meat and bones of this impressive sojourn in a twilit forest, a blackgaze/post black metal album worthy of the name. Why did this review start then with an Alcest reference? Because Niege, AKA Stéphane Paut, the driving force behind Alcest, plays drums here and has obviously created much of his artistic impetus to this release. The result of this blending of directions is what many Alcest fans wished that Shelter would be: yes, a dreamy and shoegaze release but also one which knows when to double down and recall the primal violence at the roots of black metal. Wistful is all of that and more, a complex album that utilizes the full range of influences that come together in this unique time we find ourselves in to create blackgaze.
Microcosms is a very handy idea for covering albums. The image of the whole being contained in the part is everywhere around us and in music as well. Take a look at the opening two tracks of this album for an example, since they contain the overall tension and its release which makes this album be. “Delusions” opens the track and is heavily shoegaze: the guitars strum open chords that slowly fade out into fuzz, the drums are subdued and rolling while the bass plays supporting roles. In the center are Sylvaine’s vocals, beautiful, ethereal and heavily relying on her feminine timbre. This creates an opening to the album which is expansive, immediately locating it within the multiple sub-genres now in operation around the more “gaze” parts of the metal community. These ideas are present in plenty on the rest of the album. “A Ghost Trapped in Limbo” for example is a beautiful, folk tinged track which reminds one of Ulvesang. It melds the shoegaze with acoustic guitar, creating an expansive and yet familiar timbre.
However, it is “Earthbound” which is needed to complete the picture. It starts off with a higher pace riff, coupled with drums on the verge of blast beats, to immediately grab our attention after the languid and extended first track. All this attention, your neck poised as your mind understands what is coming, is released with Sylvaine’s first, screeched, black metal vocals. The pitch here is high, delivering a performance closer to Dreadnought than Emperor or Behemoth. This is that raw, hurt, lost strand of black metal vocals. They are further elevated by their competition with the ethereal, clean vocals which, instead of disappearing, present a fine counterpoint to their abrasive intonations. The track fades out with a return to shoegaze and the elements described in the first track, leaving us with a clear understanding of where the weight of the composition lies. Other tracks like “In The Wake of Moments Passed By” give more prominence to this style, tipping the balance back into the realm of black metal and its heavy choke hold on the throat and stomach.
However, it is exactly by blending the two styles, instead of creating a back and forth, that the power of this album lies. Too often in releases like these, black metal and shoegaze are regulated to their own disparate parts of the album, meeting only in transitions and bridges. Here, as we saw with the co-existence of the harsh and clean vocals, they live side by side and feed each other constantly. This makes Wisftul a hard to unpack effort and, indeed, one which demands active and strained listening from its audience. Like many of the albums within this sub-genre here perhaps lies its main flaw: this album will leave you tired, drained and haggard at its end. However, if you’re looking for dreams coupled with terror and pain, if you’re looking for that certain, mid-era Alcest vibe that you just can’t get anywhere else, if you’d like to break the obvious Myrkur comparisons and hear a different take on female led black metal, this is the album for you. Its rich riffs, reverb and honesty will carry you through its demanding twists and turns.