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Bands like Alcest sure do make a mockery of stereotypes and boundaries separating black metal and softer, melody-based forms of what once upon a time was called indie shoegazer pop. It's possible indeed to combine harsh music like BM, noise or industrial with melodic and sonically smooth song-based structures and elements to create a style of accessible and highly expressive music in which the darkest emotions and the brightest emotions such as joy and exultation co-exist easily. Alcest achieves this fusion of dark and light genres seamlessly on "Ecailles de Lune"; the music expresses melancholy, longing, grace and hope as well as anger and urgency in ways that are beautiful, elegant and spacious. The sound is usually clear and liquid, even when the BM guitar textures are at their grimmest and most abrasive. Though harsh and soft musical elements might be expected to create tension and a sense of unease and foreboding, here they produce a sense of wholeness which may not necessarily be reflected in the lyrics. Indeed the danger here is that sometimes the music is a bit too smooth and happy and lacking in the spark that a rougher and sharper approach in the music's recording might have given.
The two tracks that make up the two parts to "Ecailles de Lune" run the gamut from pensive and sombre to hope and longing to be at one with nature in their mood. Acoustic, melodic guitar melodies touched with reverb can be dark, jangly and dreamy and put the listener in a slightly hypnotic mood. Batteries of BM guitar riffs that might suddenly hit the ears after episodes of sparkling dreaminess might look ill-advised on paper but the impact and contrast in sound in texture between the acoustic and BM elements are not that great. There may be folk influences in some of the guitar-playing which smooth over any differences and awkward juxtapositions. The vocals vary a great deal from smooth and contemplative clean-toned singing and murmuring to throaty BM-styled screeching.
The rest of the album sounds like a footnote to the "Ecailles ..." parts even though it carries the bulk of the album's theme. Listeners might be forgiven for thinking they've stumbled into well-worn Burzumesque melody territory with "Percees de Lumieres" with the poppy-sounding melody and steady drum-beats - but then the song detours into some darkly moody and meandering paths of stuttering guitar sparkle and steady-as-it-goes drumming. "Abysses" is a welcome if too brief and undeveloped venture into alien deep-space ambience. The last two tracks form a complementary pair: "Solar Song" sounds an easy-listening, easy-going celebratory piece but it seems drained of energy, perhaps because it's too steady in pace; and outro track "Sur l'Ocean Couleur de Fer" is its dark twin, sorrowful and wistful in mood and style as the alternative universe shuts shop and recedes away from the listener.
Main Alcest man Neige has put a lot of love, care and thought into crafting this album - and beautifully crafted it is too, the songs following a narrative which is partly reflected in the album's whimsical cover art, seen through a portal - but the entire work is missing a distinctive flavour, a zest that would give it real life and inidividuality and lift it into a realm of greatness. The album's theme is a well-worn one - going on an internal or mystical journey in a different dimension and ending up perhaps abandoned or alone - and needs something to really freshen it and make the alternative universe in the ocean seem like it's being visited for the very first time even though listeners may have made the journey many times before. Perhaps if Neige had used more folk music elements, maybe drawn on French folk cultures connected with fishing or the sea for inspiration, such elements would have given the necessary zing and individuality to Alcest's particular BM / post-rock / shoegazer pop fusion.
My personal feeling is that with this kind of shoegazer BM, it needs something a bit off-kilter about it, some slight eccentricity, that would make it intriguing to listeners and get them curious to explore it more. With all due respect for Neige, who's probably sweated more than a few buckets over his Alcest project, I don't think it's enough that the music be well-made technically and have a beautiful sound - it must have something that actually makes it a bit less than perfect. Otherwise over time, the music will lose its freshness and end up sounding too smooth and generic.