The narrative around this album seems to go something like this: For the last few years, influential French band Alcest (the brainchild of Neige, aka Stephane Paut) has carved its own niche with a kind of black metal and shoegaze style that has since been adopted by several other bands, most successfully Alcest’s former tourmate Deafheaven, who had a spectacular breakthrough year last year. The success of Sunbather has turned a greater amount of attention on the new Alcest record, and Neige has responded by producing an album that is entirely free of any notion of what metal music is supposed to entail.
It is not such an unexpected step, and yet as a newcomer to the band, I have trouble believing that Alcest ever dabbled in the dark arts. As that cover suggests, Shelter is an album defined most prominently by sunlight. It’s there in the lead single, “Opale,” whose high chiming guitars are a dead ringer for certain influential early-nineties acts (and indeed Slowdive’s lead singer Neil Haldstead pops up on the late album track “Away” to confirm Neige’s dream pop credentials). It’s there in the choice of producer Birgir Jon Birgisson, best known for his work with Sigur Ros. All of the ingredients are in place for a bonafide shoegaze/post-rock/whatever album, one of moods and textures and one you are supposed to feel as much as listen to.
And yet Shelter is at its strongest in its opening moments when Neige sticks to a more rigid songwriting structure. “Opale” is a delight, but “La nuit marche avec moi” is even better, a song of beguiling gentility that has almost an indie rock feel to it, with its slightly increased tempo and an effortless vibe. The clean mix in place might put you off if you are looking for a crunchier texture, but the airiness really suits Neige’s low, soothing vocals. For the album’s one truly heavier moment, you’ll have to look to the climax of “Voix Sereines.” For the most part, the song actually sounds like some kind of shoegaze power ballad, and it threatens to become a little mawkish and shapeless before that rousing, pounding guitar finale brings it thrillingly back down to earth.
Oddly, Alcest achieves the most grandeur when it isn’t trying too hard to achieve it. Both the title track and “L’eveil des muses” suffer slightly from the sense that you’ve heard it all before and are missing the tightness of the album’s opening songs. Both have their moments (the vocal harmonies in “Shelter” are subtle and lovely), but back to back they create an inevitable sense of mid-album drift. That sense is almost compounded by closer “Délivrance,” whose ten-minute length is self-consciously epic, but in truth, the song’s middle section really does live up to its intention, providing the album with one of its most beautiful moments.
There will be those who mourn Alcest’s passing as an edgier band. As a newcomer to the group I will take Shelter purely on its merits, and in truth, it does have plenty. The album does nothing new, but it does do some old things very well. It certainly has more going for it than just being pretty, and the band’s restless chief will no doubt be looking at ways to expand this sound further. Who knows what Alcest will sound like going forward. All we know for now is that the band has produced a fine summer shoegaze album, one that shows plenty of respect to its predecessors without being a flat-out imitator.
For more info: