Alcest ditch their Yin and serve up a big ol’ plate of Yang
The title of ‘most tedious argument in music’ is always a highly competitive field, but has often had a runaway winner: “is it metal?” If you need proof of that statement google ‘Deafheaven – Sunbather’ and witness the amount of internet used up discussing whether Sunbather can be classed as a metal album or not. To the casual observer it had blastbeats, loud guitars and a dude sounding like his throat was possessed by some kind of goat phantom, all of which is more than enough to draw a firm conclusion from. It’s definitely some kind of metal they’d think. But the inclusion of all that post-rock/shoegaze guitar work in there made the metal purists balk. If you don’t play your damn guitar in the orthodox manner then you’re out of the damn club. Also, the record cover was pink ferchrissake. Pink. You can’t play black metal and have a pink cover. I mean, c’mon. Keep it black, yeah? And hey, Deafheaven, why is your band’s logo actually legible? That’s another cardinal sin right there. And then, worst of all, they only went and sold some records and got masses of acclaim from non-metal folk. All of which makes for a pretty incontrovertible rap sheet. File under: Not Metal.
The narrow parameters which are so vigorously policed in many ‘extreme’ musical circles that are ostensibly built on the idea of eschewing any kind of orthodoxy is an irony that never ceases to amuse/depress me (delete according to mood). But policed they are. With prejudice. For the record: it is metal. Ah, but is it black metal? Well, not to put too fine a point on it: who the fuck cares? Metal has long been the logical conclusion to Bill Hick’s People Who hate People party – subgenres split into further subgenres the minute they achieve anything approximating even the most minor of popularity. If that’s the kind of thing you have a burning need to share your opinion on you should probably have a long and frank reevaluation of your life choices.
Alcest, an influence that loom large over Deafheaven, have had their fair share of discussion regarding their membership of the metal club over the course of their career to date. Thanks to sole founding member Neige’s former life in various black metal bands the, ‘is it metal?’ discussion has followed them around from release to release despite his own insistence that it isn’t. It shared enough of metal’s DNA to make a case for it being regarded as such but Niege wisely wanted to move on from pointless acts of categorization, figuring that music should be more about the quality and impact of the music rather than diligent cataloging. With Shelter Niege has finally got his wish: this is where Alcest bow out of any such discussion once and for all. No one will be claiming Shelter is a metal album.
People have been quick to say that as their older albums were considered, ‘blackgaze’, and that now they’ve ditched the metal part of the equation then the maths dictates that they must have made a straight shoegaze record. QED. It’s true that all the blackness has been well and truly exorcised from their sound: the blast beats, the growling, the passages of furious beauty and savage joy are all gone. But without that tension between the light and the shade what’s left isn’t quite shoegaze for the most part – they sound more like your common garden variety MOR rock band, or more specifically a metal band making an MOR rock record. Take Opale, the first track proper and first single. When the guitars kick in you might be forgiven for thinking you’re listening the new U2 single rather than something Kevin Shield’s might have had a hand in. Those guitars, accompanied by the widescreen, mindlessly uplifting wordless chorus come together to make something that wouldn’t sound out of place being played in the background of that bit on Masterchef when the leaving contestant walks out the door and the remaining chefs all stand around visibly relieved while Greg, Michele and Monica all look on like proud parents. It’s…nice. But without that edge that their past incarnation had it’s nothing more than pleasant. In cutting the metal loose and giving in entirely to their light side they may have been hoping to push their sound upwards into orbit, but instead it feels more tethered than ever. It’s like they’re fighting with one hand tied behind their back.
Sadly Opale more or less sets the tone for the record. Even on the album’s better tracks their commitment to nice holds them back: the slow construction of Voix Serenes is meticulous and affecting, and when the distortion comes it feels like the song is about to take flight. Then comes the wordless chorus. And then it carries on. And on. That last touch – the drums cutting loose, the guitars getting more ragged, some slightly less ethereal and more human vocals – never quite comes. It’s to restrained, too mannered. On the weaker tracks this lack of force is even more evident – La Nuit Marche Avec Moi breezes by gently like a summer breeze, barely blowing hard enough to push a plastic shopping bag around. Sure, it’s got some nice post-rock-esque guitar feathering going on with a neat melancholy lead guitar line moping around on top. It’s a bit like mid-period The Cure, only without Robert Smith’s melancholic charisma. The lack of surging guitar or rampaging drums leave Niege more exposed than he used to be. His vocals are delicate and lilting, another sad instrument amidst the rest. But his singing was never the band’s strongest point. He resorts to those wordless oohs and ahhs and na-na-nas a lot, which is…again, nice. But once the song is over you’d struggle to recall anything about it. Other than that it was…nice.
And it’s hard to be angry at nice. Being mad at Shelter is, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, like donning a full suit of armour and attacking a hot fudge sundae. Niege has often spoken in interviews about the dreamworld he’s imagined since childhood that inspires his music. You can sense that his intention with Shelter is to grab you by the hand and take you on a journey there. It’s just a shame that enthusiasm manifests itself in such dreary music.
However it’s fair to say that perhaps if I had never heard Souvenirs d’un autre monde I wouldn’t be even mildly irked by Shelter. That old chestnut about a review being completely different if it were for a band’s debut than for their umpteenth record is valid here – but I can’t imagine I’d find the energy to even review this album if it wasn’t by the minds behind Ecailles de Lune, much less write a thousand or so chin stroking words on the matter. But the pang of disappointment for what Shelter isn’t is never far away while listing to it. And what it is isn’t remarkable to enough to distract from that.
It is worth mentioning the two most extreme points on Shelter however, it’s apex and it’s nadir, as they are instructive as to what went wrong here and how it could have all gone right. Alcest make their intentions for Shelter’s place in the music world pretty clear by inviting Neil Halstead from Slowdive, a band whose influence is writ large all over the album, to provide vocals on penultimate track Away. And without being too cruel, the whole thing is a bust – a mid-paced rock ballad, complete with the requisite rent-a-string-section, unworthy of either Slowdive or Alcest. The English lyrics only go to confirm my suspicion that if Niege sung in English I’d have a harder time listening to Alcest. In French I’m free to attach whatever meaning I like to them – in English they’re just insipid. Then afterwards we get Deliverance, ending things on a high note at least. It’s the only track other than Voix Serenes that is allowed the kind of time Alcest songs are usually allowed to develop. And unlike Voix Serenes it’s second half it gives into a post rock crescendo fully, full of fluttering Mono/EITS guitar that melt into the strings and now familiar wordless vocals and coalesces into something quite triumphant. It’s a stirring moment, and the reminder of what they’re capable of is the final thought when the curtain closes. After what has gone before it leaves a bittersweet feeling, a joy tinged with sadness. That’s the feeling I think Niege was aiming for all along, though I doubt this is quite the way he hoped to invoke it.