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Alcest are a fairly household name in the metal scene these days, their hybrid of metal and airy shoegaze propelled them to the fore in the French metal scene back in 2007. Many black metal purists were appalled by this apparent 'wuss metal' which Neige was now producing, such a contrast to his humble beginnings in Mortifera and Peste Noire. While these bands have produced some fantastic black metal, they haven’t managed anything yet comparable to 'Souvenirs D'un Autre Monde'.
Opinions on the album were heavily polarized. On one side of the coin, people were lavishing praise on Neige for attempting something completely contradictory to the norm in Black Metal and refreshing in a genre otherwise fast becoming stale. Neige probably never anticipated how revered Alcest would become in the following year or so. So much that 'Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde' basically spawned a new sub genre of metal on it's own it was that groundbreaking.
Three long years have past since their seminal debut album, and finally the long awaited follow up is upon us. It has a lot to live up to, and that it does. The first track bears a striking resemblance to Amesoeurs, it could easily be described as a continuation of his work in said project, but without Audrey. The shimmering guitar melodies from before are back only with that guitar tone which cult eighties post punk/shoegazers 'The Chameleons' were so synonymous with. It sounds like it could be any one of Neige's sung tracks off the Amesoeur's album, except with an added air of esoteric beauty which was present on neither the debut nor Amesoeur's album. The vocals are clean and engulf the song with a wave of sentimentality and serenity, sweeping around the guitars, as if they were trying to entrap them. The song breaks mid-point where the lead guitar, thick with reverb picks a sullen passage, an insight of what's yet to come, before moving up a gear towards the end again.
'Écailles de Lune (Part 2)’, in contrast to the previous song, starts out with surprisingly vicious, the drums blasting and this is the first we encounter Neige's piercing scream, which caught me off guard, as I thought he had done away with them altogether in Alcest. What's great about his harsh vocals is he doesn't over do it, unlike the demos or his work in Mortifera, he had the tendency to strain a little too hard and ended up off key and sounding quite amateurish at points. His vocals here are perfect, and although he doesn't use his extreme vocals a lot, they're among the best in the black metal scene by a long shot. There are no shoegazey elements to be heard in this section of the song, most comparable to Peste Noire with the speedy riffs and howling vocals. After a few minutes though the real beauty of this album stands out, the Black Metal dies off and the buoyant guitar picking shines down, playing an exquisite melody with an almost midnight like ambience, as if each note being played were reflected off the moon and gently glimmered back while the thick, feedback laced guitar filters through. I guess Slowdive would be the best comparison to pick, if anyone.
Third track 'Percées de Lumière' previously appeared on the split with 'Les Discrets', and is a harrowing hybrid of depressive Black Metal and writhing reverberation of early nineties shoegaze. The vocals display both Neige's shrill screaming and more tranquil side, and for the non Black Metal listeners, will probably be the hardest song to digest on the album. It is slightly similar to the material previously seen on the 'Le Secret' EP early on in the bands career, where we were only getting a glimpse of what was to come, but the alternation between the clean vocals are executed with a lot more maturity than the much more primitive EP. This is the closest to a Black Metal song on the album.
'Abysses' is a brief interlude of swirly ambience, nothing remarkable, but could serve as the most appropriate way to split the album into it's two halves, as the second half completely drops all traces of the majestic, Emperor like riffing and lovelorn brutality giving way to 'Solar Song', with it's undulating, 'Cocteau Twins' like swell. More of a grower, a gradual impact rather than the immediacy of the previous songs, this is a pure shoegaze song, with the wall of distorted feedback hanging over the chiming vocals like a setting sun looming out over a twilight sky. It is a beautiful, drifter of a song, with a nonchalant haziness about it, which the genuine fans of shoegazing dream pop will appreciate more than anyone else.
Closer 'Sur L'Océan Couleur de Fer' could be none more fitting. The slow echoing guitar clothed with Neige's harmonious vocal pattern draw the curtain with a beautiful night like ambience, a musical journey to an Elysian paradise befitted with only the silvery reflection of the moonlight off the ocean and romance. That is the one standout quality of this album beyond anything, the sheer romantic aura that emanates from the music. You may have heard of 'Romantic Black Metal' before, but there is no band more fitting to this term than Alcest, for what way to make the likes of music from Peste Noire and Celestia even more enchanting, but to bind it with one of the most romantic forms of modern day music of course.
One of the things that draws me to certain bands are their ability to conjure certain soundscapes subconsciously in your head, and in this field, no one can rival Alcest. The multiple textures all intertwined, the hypnotic vocals, the effervescent guitar all combine to drug you into a utopian dreamstate of nostalgia, love and past affections full of dark hazy blues, pale mauves and glimmering silver. This is an album to listen to with headphones alone and lose yourself completely and alleviate all the pangs and burdens of everyday life, even if only for a brief time.
Alcest seem to encounter a lot of comparison to Agalloch. Yes there are a few similar aspects to both bands, but Alcest are away above and beyond what Agalloch were ever capable of. Agalloch had their weakpoints, on the otherhand with Alcest, I can't honestly find one. As much as I loathe using the word ‘perfect’ when reviewing albums, this is one which deserves beyond all others I have heard this year so far. Neige has completely outdone himself, building upon that of 'Souvenirs D'un Autre Monde' and finally completed the next step in the evolution of Alcest. With how he plans to develop the sound further, one can only wait. There is no doubt now that Neige is moving Alcest away from their Black Metal roots, and if there was any doubt in your mind about the debut album, this album will probably not change your mind. It won’t change the opinions of bedroom black metal warriors everywhere; Neige never cared for these opinions anyway, why should he when it is that which he was obviously distancing himself from before? This album is a piece of sophisticated beauty emerging from a genre fast becoming stagnant with lifeless clones and banality. A seminal work of art, which you can guarantee will be copied, but doubtful ever matched.