Over the course of its history Alcest has been pegged as a metal band, and as such rarely garnering much attention outside the sphere of the genre. Yet, from the band’s beginnings they’ve been ploughing a different furrow, mixing up black metal leanings (there’s always an argument about just how black Alcest really is; where’s all the Satan?) with elements of shoegaze.
Over the years this approach has been adopted by a number of bands, most successfully by Deafheaven, whose album Sunbather was rightfully one of the most successful and critically acclaimed of 2013. With Deafheaven representing something of a crossover, now would surely be the time for Alcest to step up and finally reap the rewards of their hard work.
It is perhaps surprising then to find that Neige (Stéphane Paut – Alcest is fundamentally his work alone) has changed tack for the band’s fourth album. The metal influence is gone; not just the black metal aspects, but everything. Instead, Alcest’s gaze this time round is directed almost entirely at shoes. There’s a little post-rock influence here and there, but Shelter is essentially an attempt to move the Alcest sound (which had remained fairly static of late) forward, or at least sideways, and pay respects to the likes of Slowdive, Ride and My Bloody Valentine. It’s the first step along a path that perhaps leads towards more expansive and cinematic scores (an ambition recently mentioned by Neige) and although it doesn’t add anything to the genre, it does mark a substantial leap of faith for Alcest.
As homage, Shelter is practically perfect and the attention to detail is phenomenal. Using Sigur Rós producer Birgir Jón Birgisson, Alcest achieve an organic tonal quality, and his influence is marked large across the album; at times it is possible to imagine that this could be the work of Sigur Rós themselves. Opening with the short introductory piece Wings, Birgisson’s influence is clear from the outset, with choral harmonies and shimmering atmospherics setting a soft focus scene immediately. Similarly, the vocal tones and slow unfurling of the quite exquisite Voix Sereines share some DNA with Sigur Rós, although the thunderous crash of distorted guitars that roars into life owes more to the likes of Mogwai.
L’Eveil Des Muses is perhaps a little more subtle, but sticks to its task of building evocative layers, smouldering elegantly and pulsing with menace. It is less immediate than the slightly more direct Voix Sereines, but no less effective. The title track is utterly beautiful, with its gentle but remarkably catchy vocal line (the closest Alcest really get to a chorus). The twang of surf guitar, propelled by piano lines and yet more shimmering guitar lines, is about as dreamy as Alcest has ever dared be.
The presence of Slowdive’s Neil Halstead on Away is another marker of authenticity, lending the album not just a sense of authority, but also a further layer of emotional weight. His deeper tones give the song a truly sombre tone, and as he’s singing in English (as opposed to Neige’s native tongue) there’s a folk tint that makes itself apparent. The delicate guitars and well judged string arrangements – courtesy of Amiina – are designed to tug at the heartstrings and bear more than a passing resemblance to The Moody Blues‘ Never Comes The Day. This is not necessarily a bad thing at all.
Délivrance carries the pastoral influences of Away forward momentarily and threads them into the fabric of an astounding epic finale. Elements of Wicker Man folk evolve into expansive joyous harmonies, and angelic vocals combine to create a truly breathtaking closer, moving from the shackles of earthly concerns and out into the cosmos. It’s the closest Alcest come to shaking off the confines of the genre they are in thrall to, and suggests that before long Neige and Alcest will create something even more stunning. For now, Shelter is a phenomenal start along a new path.