Deafheaven’s Sunbather may have blown up the post-black metal sound to a wider audience in 2013, but it was France’s Alcest — lead by prolific black metal musician Stephane “Niege” Pault — that is perhaps ultimately responsible for the wash of reverberating tremolo picks, blastbeats, and emphasis on melodic and emotional creshendos that we saw bloom over the last decade. Niege has either directly or indirectly touched everything in the scene since 2005’s Le Secret, which incorporated hypnotic post-rock instrumental passages, shoegaze ambiance, and explosive black metal.
Since then, Niege and Alcest have created bonafide classics. The band’s 2007 debut Souvenirs d’un autre monde was a big deal in the circles that were aware of the then-burgeoning genre’s infant steps, but by the time 2010’s Écailles de Lune came out, people started to pay attention. Since then, Niege has been toying with the dial between shoegaze and black metal, ousting black metal almost entirely on the divisive Shelter in 2014, which was more of a dreampop record than anything else; bright, glossy, and a near-complete absense of screamed vocals.
The blackened edges had a much celebrated return to form in 2016 on Kodama. Neige described the record as “punchy, darker, and more personal,” which was certainly the case; indeed, Kodama was hypnotic and often ferocious, and had more musical and emotional weight than Shelter. After Kodama, Alcest signed to Nuclear Blast, which offered a step up in terms of visibility and worldwide press. It’s easy to be cynical about such a hefty carrer decision; signing to a largel record label may unintentionally signal a readiness for accessibility. It was easy to anticipate another Shelter, rather than a continuation of Kodama.
How likely is it, that some six records deep into the band’s career and signing to a major label, Alcest are able to create what is easily one of their best? Never tell me the odds, but with Spiritual Instinct, Alcest have pulled it off.
Obviously, many will cling to the early days of Souvenirs and Écailles; such is the case with every major band that saw some amount acclaim and influence. But Neige has struck a balance between shoegaze and black metal that feels dead-on here, while incorporating some new elements from the broader post-metal genre. How rare it is that a band that influenced an entire musical genre evolve with the scene they helped create, taking as they’ve given back. It’s a delight. Spriritual Instinct is somewhat of a continuation of Kodama‘s stylistic leanings, but reaches some new heights.
Alcest have never been particularly “riffy.” Huge, lush chord progressions? Yes. Tremolo-picked melodies? For days. But riffs that make you do that face? Almost never. Early highlight “Protection” pulls a powerful riff out of the playbook from The Ocean and spends some time on it, cycling intricate drum grooves underneath. Later, Neige doubles a guitar melody with his voice in such a way that is ethereal. Likewise, “L’Ile Des Morts” gets shockingly close to Tool with its main riff, hitting a strangely accented groove that raises eyebrows and demands attention from the shoegaze hypnosis. The track has more to offer later when the noise dies down and a bright, haunting melody shines through before exploding back into grandeur.
Alcest have also started to pull from a new era and style of shoegaze-adjacent music; the drum-and-bass intro of “Les Jardins De Minuit” as well as the steady power chords of “Sapphire” seem to pull from 90’s grunge and alt-rock, bringing to mind the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth, but folding these styles in so that it feels so naturally Alcest.
It’s tracks like “Protection” and “L’Ile Des Morts” that show how far Alcest has come in their strengths as songwriters. The tracks don’t meander aimlessly; the songwriting is structured and immensely dynamic, with multiple hooks per song. Penultimate track “Le Miroir” also offers a look at the band’s post-rock-leaning orchestrations as a more linear and evolving track, which speaks to the album’s structure and sequencing for coming so late in the runtime. The title track serves as a summation of the album’s tone and style; lush, ethereal, and massive.
As I’ve said before, there’s probably going to be some debate over whether Spiritual Instict is the best Alcest record, and there’s a solid case to be made for either of the first two records in its stead. Spiritual Instinct though sees Alcest at their peak songwriting, performance, and production, and at the end of the day, the fact that we get to have this conversation about Alcest in 2019 is incredible. As is Spritual Instinct.
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Alcest’s Spiritual Instinct is out October 25, 2019 on Nuclear Blast. Pre-orders are available at this location.