Jan 21, 2014

Music Review: "Shelter" by Alcest

By Rron Karahoda

For a band that has been labeled as Black Metal for most of its existence, “Shelter” by Alcest is a departure from its roots into a brighter, effect-heavy land known as Shoe-gaze. The change may seem to come as a surprise or at least an attempt to follow in the steps of bands like Deafheaven who are also absorbing effects and an ambience into their work, but this album feels different than that. It is an album that was bound to happen. The aesthetic of shoe-gaze, that of a digital mist, has been the undercurrent of founder Neige’s (Stéphane Paut) musical language and style from the very beginning. A few of Alcest’s songs, like “Tir Nan Og” or “Sur L’océan Couleur Der Fer” or “Havens” all lack the heavy and driving vestments of Black Metal and are peppered throughout the albums as little questions to the audience. “Can I try this?” “Will you like this?” Neige seems to have always wanted this sound in his music and with the help of Sigur Rós producer Birgir Jón Birgisson “Shelter” is an album that accomplishes this magnificently.

1) "Wings"
“Wings” opens with what seems to be the slow-mo music from the 2012 action movie Dredd. A cacophony of layered voices, Neige starts off “Shelter” without a clear home. There are no drums, no guitars, there is a total absence of shrieked vocals and it borders on being overproduced. For having cut loose many of the mainstays of “Black Metal” as it is often performed the song carries a tension and anxiety that you might find blasted at you from an “IMMORTAL” song. After this Dredd-like opening. A simple melody is introduced, and bears a hymn like quality. There are no lyrics, just open voices that after a few repetitions are harmonized with a chorus of higher voices that make the already open sound of the track even bigger. This song quickly carries on into the second song but is a firm statement to all of Neige’s listeners. This is only the beginning.

2) "Opale"
“Opale” introduces a guitar and drums, imitating the melody of “Wings” before bringing in the vocals. The vocals for this song are subdued and offer a nice contrast to the now-brash tone of the previous track. The form of this song is relatively straightforward, switching between quieter vocals and  larger instrumental sections. This song is solid and manages the transition from the high energy opening of the album really well. It can be hard to come down from a sound like that of “Wings”, which often threaten to become larger and larger until you are left with nothing but a muddy, clustered sound and a lot of pent-up energy. Every time the energy seems to dissipate the music blows up again but due to the repetitive nature of the song structure each repetition carries less and less weight creating a need for something new to hear. This happens until the end of the song where the voice is left alone, dissipating into nothingness.

3) "La Nuit Marche Avec Moi"
This song opens as in a dream until the drums come in. In this moment it sounds like Neige might be returning to his blacker roots but he opts to tone down the drums and simply add energy to the dreamy quality of the guitar. It is a little bit of a disappointment because the hard entrance of the drums makes us yearn for more and by the third minute of the song, it having occurred is all but a distant memory. The way it is, it is a meaningless action. Perhaps teasing us with a few false entrances like that over the course of the song would give it more strength. Under the syrup that is the guitar Neige often outfits a choral sound with drums which ultimately envelops the song within a texture that long-time fans of Alcest may recognize. It is a hard sound, like carefully constructed feedback. This song too keeps alternating from subdued to aggressive in a simple manner. The languages are not mixed at all, but they are kept together because of their production values. It is passable but for the history behind Alcest it seems like having the moods switch so cleanly is simple and tiresome. It is too much of the same approach, and just as separated as the labels between which Neige finds himself.

4) "Voix Sereines"
“Voix Sereines” opens in an almost identical fashion to the previous track, complete with a late entrance of the drums. It is the slow song of the album and although the melody is strangely reminiscent of the one found in “Wings” this is the strongest track so far. It feels heavy, the genres seem blended, and it approaches a certain level of shlock at the halfway mark. This track seems sentimental and lacks the repeating A-B-A format of the previous tracks. At four minutes, the guitar distorts and the whole album so far pays off. The climax is not a high energy solo over an anxious choral texture, it is the introduction of distortion. This is what fans want to hear and it fits so perfectly into the language that Neige has set up that it makes up for the over-bearing simplicity of the previous tracks. I feel ready to enter the rest of Alcest’s world and am eager to hear the next track.

5) "L’Eveil de Muses"
Opening with a “western twang”, this song provides the album with a much desired use of syncopation. However, Neige is so aware of this that he compensates with unusually high levels on the drums. They have been quiet thus far but here they pierce the texture so sharply that I lose track of the syncopation. This song smacks a little of New Age from time to time but is otherwise polished and tasteful that the result is a very coherent song. This song feels like a long trek, and utilizes its cinematic qualities in such a way that we do not really mind hearing the same bit of music repeated for three and a half minutes. The effect is almost minimalist and it provides the space for the vocals to come in and really dominate the song. It is safe to say that the second half of the album is a lot more comfortable in its language and is that much more memorable for it.

6) "Shelter"
The namesake of the album, “Shelter” opens in similar fashion to the previous songs, with a dream-like guitar part that has the rest of the sound join in. The guitar and voice parts are heavily attached, often moving in tandem which gives the melody a weight and importance to it. There is a small keyboard part in the background which all but drops off as if realizing that it wasn’t adding too much to an already full sound. The drums feel “metal” however slowly they may be playing and I think it makes the song. So far the drums have seemed a little bored or used almost as a gimmick but in this song the drums are perfectly leveled, their timbre is utilized intelligently and I find myself enjoying the sound created by the interplay between the drums and the harmonized vocals. This song could be just those parts and it would still be good.

7) "Away"
This song is in English! I am not entirely sure why but it doesn’t depart from the nature of the French that makes up the bulk of this album. There is also cello in this song, and it makes me wonder why cello was not used throughout this album. Cello has been used in metal for ages now and it could have served as a perfect focal point throughout the album. This song is pretty simple, it goes through its entirety with a little bit of A-B-A action but is very enjoyable.

8) "Delivrance"
The final song opens on a held note, which then introduces the guitar sound we have come to expect at the start of every song in this album. The material is repeated with voice and drums added on to it and the effect is calming. There is a finality to this song. Every time the material repeats another layer is added to inflate of sense of completion. There is only one way this song can go. At three minutes a beautiful moment occurs where a distorted guitar plays with a bubbling synth and it is a moment of fusion between Neige’s worlds that really makes this album. This is what the whole album is intended for, it seems. To bring these worlds a little closer together. The held tone from the beginning becomes louder and louder until it is the foreground. This song has the effect of thinking that something is being stripped away, while continuing to add or replenish the multitude of effects already in place. It is done through a constant note throughout the whole piece which hovers in place just enough for us to make out the small oscillations in its tone. It is no surprise when the material does in fact strip away and leave us with just this tone. The tone seems to disintegrate when the repeating material comes back in. I was a little disappointed with this resurgence because without the encompassing effect of the held tone the melodic material seems shrill and cheap. It feels very synthetic in this moment and drags on for too long. As if to insist on making us accept this version of the material, it is repeated almost ad infinitum until the song ends.

All in all “Shelter” is an exceptional interim album. It is beautiful, and has some very good ideas in it but too many of the tracks sound similar and it gets to be very cheesy at times. What is worse is that this feeling seems unintentional. The music and poetics of Neige are genuine and seems to come from a place that he has been expected to ignore for far too long. But it is for this reason that I am excited to see what Neige learns from this experience and how Alcest will sound in the future. High production values seduced this album, but in the end it was for all of the right reasons. It is perfectly made to lose yourself inside of it. Amidst all of the shiny new sounds, a sense of drive and multi-faceted expression seem to have been intermittently misplaced. If you are looking to relax or feel as though you need to release your solid grip on genre or the world around you “Shelter” comes highly recommended although not very highly coveted.

Grade: B

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