Alcest – Les Chants de l’Aurore


Alcest’s 2005 EP, Le Secret, can lay claim as the first attempt to marry the worlds of atmospheric black metal and shoegaze. It’s something that has excited the hipster press since its inception and seldom impressed the metal community. Despite this schism, Alcest remain impervious to criticism and seem to be everyone’s favourite non-heavy band after Radiohead. In 2019, they signed to Nuclear Blast and released the acclaimed LP, Spiritual Instinct. So, what is so special about a musical duo that admits to overdosing on the works of Slowdive? Perhaps album number seven can answer this question.

Those that enjoyed 2016’s Shelter album by Alcest will already know the fairyland inhabited by this band when they abandon their metal influences and revert to a shoegaze sound. Opener, ‘Komorebi’, sees nostalgic keyboard swells clash with major key guitars like REM’s Monster album under the spell of Teenage Fanclub. A mid-register bass bubbles underneath in the hope that this might create a diversionary source of tension. Yet main man, Neige, enters the microphone booth like an indie rock vocalist with no backbone. Is the aim here to create a sense of longing for a golden utopia where one can be alone from the presence of other human beings? The agitated dynamics are the most interesting feature of this song, but the vocals are too sedate in the mix to leave a mark.

‘L’envol’ is more intelligible. Listen to the screeches of feedback and slow-motion strumming of the distorted guitars in the intro. Surely, we can call this alternative rock? If not for the band’s black metal origins, it’s doubtful any metalhead would give this the time of day. But take this perspective out of the equation, and you have a form of melancholy guitar music with an abundance of light-hearted sorrow. The token screams at 05:50 are superfluous and do nothing to change the mood. Instead, the question is are you ready to feel the breeze as you run through the cornfields?

There’s no doubt that shoegaze – for all its flaws – has a remarkable ability to create a vivid sense of place. ‘Améthyste’ has a dash of post-punk to it in places, but Neige’s vocals melt into the wall of sound production. Observe how the electric guitar strings throb under the fingers of their creator through the wailing chord changes. You can hear Alcest’s influence on Svalbard in this song. Let it take you to a dream world, and you’ll reap the benefits. But could it be any more lodged in the 1990s?

Most of the vocal arrangements here have pretensions to reach the ethereal majesty of dream pop without arriving at the desired place. Take ‘Flamme jumelle’ as an example. You can hum the vocal lines in a moment of mind-wandering reflection, but you cannot sing along to them. ‘L’enfant de la lune’ would be much more effective with confident vocals that pulsate with anguish. Musically, it takes a modicum of traditional black metal and transplants it to an eco-system of butterflies and rabbits that could be endangered by human developers at any time. You can feel the sadness in your bones as you clutch the knife that can end it all.

One cannot deny the talent of Alcest’s mastermind, Neige. Sit down in a quiet place with closing track, ‘L’adieu’, and you might find that it produces a lump in your throat. Now, you can touch the burdens that troubled you all along as the nimble strings of an acoustic guitar resonate like words lost to the ether. Here, Neige works through the parameters of a mournful tenor voice with more conviction. The simple hammer-on and pull-off note in the main guitar passage promises to swim inside your head and clean it for you. It’s an emotive way to finish a decent but rather innocuous album lacking in next level greatness.


Verdict


Release Date: 21/06/2024

Record Label: Nuclear Blast

Standout track: Améthyste, L’enfant de la lune, L’adieu

Suggested Further Listening: Deafheaven – Infinite Granite (2021), Puppy – Pure Evil (2022), Astronoid – Radiant Bloom (2022)