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Spiritual Healing - 83%

Hellbent, September 13th, 2021
Written based on this version: 2019, CD, Nuclear Blast

The somewhat mediocre nature of Alcest’s fourth album Shelter, and only incremental improvement of its follow-up, Kodama, posed the question of whether the band had permanently misplaced the combination for the lock that they had previously opened so easily, allowing an unbroken stream of other-worldly magic to enchant three albums of bewitching shoegaze-infused (occasionally black) metal. These albums also had the impact of reducing expectations for Spiritual Instinct, the band’s sixth album, released in 2019. There is something wonderful though, about being surprised by a band that one has all but given up on, and Spiritual Instinct is a surprise indeed. The title itself is instructive though. The lightweight indie-rock of Shelter suggested that the band were second-guessing themselves to a degree, calculating the most likely route to the kind of mainstream success that many of their inspirations achieved, without realising that in actual fact the lack of conviction obvious in their compromise would only make such success less likely. Kodama contains some diverting moments and a thematic thrust that matches perfectly with the band’s aesthetic, but is let down by the formulaic nature of the songs, and unflinchingly downbeat atmosphere. This time round, however, it appears that the band are following their instinct once more, and consequently, the resulting songs soar with a fluency and authenticity that erases an lingering doubts about their ability to recapture that which was missing, presumed dead for nearly ten long years.

The most satisfying aspect of Spiritual Instinct is that it fixes the most glaring faults of the previous records, most notably the stultifying repetition and melodic void of Kodama, but at the same time positions itself as a record that occupies a logical and progressive position in the band’s discography, repurposing some of the more promising elements of those albums in a more productive context, shedding a dazzling new light on some of the ideas that the band had been experimenting with. Rather than cravenly appearing to construct the pretence that Shelter and Kodama simply did not exist, a tactic not completely alien to a heavy music scene that still remembers the mid-period Destruction albums, not to mention Mötley Crüe’s ill-advised grunge phase, Alcest’s sixth album seems to reconstruct what came before from hazy, rose-tinted memories of a now-distant past, omitting the parts that add nothing, and bring no joy, and then building new structures around the solid core that remains, un-corroded by the passage of time.

While much of Spiritual Instinct feels reassuringly familiar, Neige also assimilates and integrates new ideas more effectively and seamlessly than ever before. The clanging bassline and booming, almost ritualist toms of the post-punk opening to ‘Les Jardins De Minuit’ suggests that Killing Joke, Joy Division and even Big Black have been added to the band’s playlist, alongside the usual touchpoints of Smashing Pumpkins, Slowdive and 90s black metal, and it lends Alcest’s sound an almost palpable heft and weight that is novel, but not unwelcome. This anchors them a little more in the human realm; the light and airy sound of the early records that allowed them to float untethered into Neige’s fairy world having been replaced by something more dense, but at this point in the band’s career, the setting aside of childish things in favour of grappling with something more existential seems appropriate and suitably mature. In a strong portent for the rest of the album, these new ideas are then proven to combine perfectly with something that could be found on any Alcest album. As the track explodes into life, a cold tremolo riff uncoils like a spring released from a slowly compressing vice, and Alcest are transformed temporarily into the black metal that they once were, before Neige realised that it was possible to employ black metal devices in a way that preserves some of the feeling and character of the genre, even if it is sonically far removed from Immortal, or Darkthrone. In this way, Spiritual Instinct immediately offers an unforgettable passage of music, the first of many on an album that is as well-stocked with hooks as Kodama was bereft. The shades of Johnny Marr’s guitar work in The Smiths that peppered the band’s early work also return here, as Alcest alternate between their familiar minor keys and snatches of major arpeggios, the overall effect dazzling, as shards of unexpected light penetrate the gloom, suggesting the hope of distant salvation moving closer, little by little.

Elsewhere, the 90s alternative rock and grunge influences, never too far from the surface throughout the band’s career really come to the fore on a number of tracks, lending an uncharacteristic and refreshing punch to these tracks. The monolithic, blunt force riffing of ‘Protection’ which reminds the listener of Helmet’s work on Meantime and Betty, offers a real change of pace, and a different kind of attack for Alcest, providing a springboard for Neige’s soaring vocals, which offer strong evidence of a new-found confidence in his voice as an instrument, habitually buried under layers of guitar and synth historically, but now set free. ‘L’Île Des Morts’, at a lengthy nine minutes, very much the centrepiece of the entire record, is built around a similarly propulsive grungy guitar figure, but where the brevity of ‘Protection’ is an asset in the way in which it brings variety to an album which could so easily fall prey to Alcest’s tendency to meander like a lazy river. Here, the band have learned that flying a little more like a crow, and taking the direct route, could be equally as productive. ‘L’Île Des Morts’ enthralls as it moves through numerous themes and sections, each one more entrancing than the last, and demonstrates that Alcest are just as adept as drawing their ideas out into more epic territory, even as they embrace the benefits of shorter, more conventional song structures. The strident up-tempo metallic sounds that sprinkle angular discordance amid the off-kilter rhythms that propel the track also allow a glimpse into a possible future for Alcest as a mainstream rock band, occupying a similar niche to Muse or Biffy Clyro, but just as the listener is considering whether catchy hooks of the majestic chorus represent an acceptable exchange rate for the near-religious wonder evoked by the earlier work, the track spins off into an altogether more scintillating second half, as if the band’s music has been knocked out of its regular orbit in a collision with another heavenly body. In this way, the island of death becomes the location of the rebirth of this aspect of the band’s sound. After a tranquil breakdown, the staccato, Japanese-sounding guitar lines that were so over-used on the band’s previous album return, each note plucked with deliberate and methodical precision, as if a succession of miniature splinters were being drawn from the hand of a child who has come to mischief. Gradually intruding on the peaceful scene are layers of guitar scree, which eventually build and conspire to deliver an archetypal cathartic post-rock climax, expertly bringing together all dimensions of the band’s sound into a single summary of their career to date, a towering moment of communion that compares favourably with anything they have ever released.

The remainder of the album cannot hope to maintain such a high quality, but happily, the drop is hardly precipitous. It will come as no surprise to long-standing listeners that one of the album’s tracks is an experimental instrumental, but what may be less expected is that the experiment enacted on ‘Le Miroir’ is entirely successful. Loping guitar lines create a densely woven melodic mantra, the hypnotic effect offset by eerie keyboards stabs, which are reminiscent of the kind of 80s revivalism of Zombi, and even the kind of stark synth-augmented funeral doom of Thergothon, albeit not quite plumbing the depths of despondency revelled in by that particular band. The mirror into which Alcest are gazing here is in fact a carnival mirror, reflecting a warped, but no less fascinating version of a band that reminds us once again of just how singular and magical they can be. As the title track closes the record in comparatively unrestrained style for a band that have exerted such tight control over their emotions for the best part of six albums, the heart-rending and redemptive conclusion reveals the humanity at the heart of this resurgent musical force.

Expectations for Spiritual Instinct were not terribly high, and indeed it seemed possible that Alcest would become yet another band forced to sustain a career of diminishing returns, riding forever on the back of a handful of excellent albums, until the inevitable and perhaps inescapable dissolution of the band (probably termed a ‘hiatus’, as seems to be the fashion these days), for as many years as required to generate enough buzz for the equally inevitable reformation to hit the festival circuit amid the kind of anticipation needed to guarantee an elevated position on the bill. Not only avoiding the partial missteps of Shelter and Kodama, but even more impressively, pulling the best elements of those album into a revitalised sound that successfully combines the various disparate strands of the band’s constant evolution into a single album, but without seeming backwards-looking or revisionist. The album is not the band’s best – the transcendental magic of their second and third efforts is a moment in time that cannot quite be replicated – but it is their most consistent and coherent. Not only that, but the focussed nature of an album that nonetheless doesn’t skimp on atmosphere, provides the band with a set of songs that can become the cornerstones of a strong live set, delivering the kind of energising aggression and memorable vocal melodies needed to balance the more extravagant indulgences of their earlier material. Spiritual Instinct is also exactly the right album at the right time. Another mediocre offering could have buried the band for good, but in fact, the album acts as a reminder of the continuing brilliance of a band who still occupy a niche in the metal scene that no other bands visit very often, as well as consolidating past successes into a platform that should see them continue to flourish for many more years.

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