Friday, 26 March 2010

Alcest - Écailles de Lune (2010) 80/100.

2010 was bound to be a big year for Alcest and the two musicians respectively given their participation with other notable bands. Whilst Neige is synonymous with Alcest and vice versa, we cannot forget Winterhalter’s impact as the bands drummer. More often than not people seem to assume Alcest are a one man band run solely by Neige and although he does contribute towards most of the music, Winterhalter definitely plays an important role given his growing experience and prowess as a drummer. As I stated, 2010 was always going to be a huge year for these two talented men. Whilst most metal fans familiar with the two will recognise them as being musicians for Alcest, first and foremost, they both have other projects busy at work. Neige is currently offering his vocal services to Lantlôs who’re releasing a highly anticipated sophomore full-length later this year, as well as joining the formidable Forgotten Woods in their bid to recapture their form from the early and late 1990’s, a decade which saw their best material gracing it.

Winterhalter, on the other hand, has been busy at work with Les Discrets, a band who released a split album with Alcest not too long ago in fact. Though the split didn’t highlight the best qualities of either band, though it did more to show why Les Discrets are growing in reputation as a fantastic avant-gardé band, it did give the world an insight into the capabilities of both acts, whilst also, rather unfortunately, showcasing potential problems which Neige could have run into on Alcest’s sophomore. The more I’ve listened to ‘Écailles de lune’, the title for the sophomore, the more I’ve warmed to it. However, this process has been a slow, but steady one. In regards to Alcest’s previous material, namely the ‘Le Secret’ EP and the much loved debut full-length ‘Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde’, I instantly fell in love with the romantic vision that Alcest forged with both of those individual and highly different releases. Perhaps a strange analogy, but I find that I view ‘Écailles de lune’ like a mother suffering from post-natal depression views her child at birth.

She’s distant and though she knows she should love her child, her troublesome depression prevents her from doing so. However, in time, the depression gradually begins to subside and she grows to love and adore her child like there was never any problem. Although I dare not call my troubles in relating to Alcest’s sophomore something on a similar level to post-natal depression, there is a likeness between the two. Given my affections for Neige and Alcest in general, I knew I should adore this record, but there was something preventing me from doing so, something I buried deep inside me in an attempt to unlock the love a person like me, with my adoration of post-whatever black metal and shoegazing black metal, should be able to generate in regards to this somewhat neglected middle child. When I initially started to analyse this record, I noticed a clear distinction between the first and second half of the material. The first half contains material akin to the debut and perhaps even the sometimes furious aggressor that is ‘Le Secret’. Though ‘Le Secret’ is in no way the same type of black metal journey as the lo-fi, angry ‘Tristesse Hivernale’, there is still some of that early angst present in the aforementioned EP.

However, it was around this time that Alcest started to develop a shoegazing sound, one which was very French sounding, very romantic and somewhat idealised. Although I’ve had several months to become accustomed to the individual song that is ‘Percées de Lumière’, it took me time to see it in the same light as the other material present on the sophomore, one which begins strongly and ends cagily. ‘Percées de Lumière’ is very much in a similar vein to the material on ‘Le Secret’. Shoegazing, spirally guitars from Neige and even some of his harsher vocals, which come in a distinctive rasped form. The cohesion between the cleaner and harsher aspects is more mature than on the juvenile ‘Le Secret’ and that adds a freshness to the style, despite the fact that Alcest fans will know and love the approach and have done for many years already. The production definitely helps with its airy and bouncy qualities. The guitars and vocals, though distorted, don’t detract from the cleaner aspects and, as ‘Percées de Lumière’ shows, Neige is capable of factoring in cleaner parts, such as his harmonic vocals into the ocean of distortion that comes towards the end of this particular song.

The title track, which is split into two different parts, also shows these qualities, but not to the same extent as the third song, ‘Percées de Lumière’. In fact, these two title tracks form the basis of the positivity which will probably flow off the page of many reviews. The second part, in particular, is some of Neige’s best work as he shows his talent for song writing and melding different approaches together solidly into one flowing depiction of beauty, in particular, and nature, two themes vividly explored throughout the course and duration of the sophomore. As shown well on part one of the title track, Neige even includes his simplistic vision of beauty and juxtaposed melancholy through the use of tremolo riffs whilst Winterhalter provides a more discrete dynamic side with his often varied drumming. Neige has definitely smoothed his vocals out and a become a softer, gentile front man.

From what I’ve seen of his live performances on YouTube and such, what he lacks in stage presence, he makes up for in beauty through subtle qualities, as shown well through the bass on the record, too. I definitely feel that Alcest have matured with this record, though they still know how to approach the audience with faster, more bombastic stylistic qualities, as shown in the use of double bass blasts and crushing riffs on the opening of the self-titled song (part two). I felt a very different presence in atmospheric tendencies with this record than I did with the debut. The debut seemed to deal more with beauty and innocence, whilst this record spends its time divulging into the topic of beauty through nature, as shown well on the use of oceanic samples and the aquatic atmosphere of some of its songs. ‘Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde’ was a record I felt Alcest may not be able to live up to and the disappointing final two songs highlight exactly why this is.

Though ‘Solar Song’ has grown on me, it doesn’t contain the same sort of emphasis on shoegazing beauty that the opening three songs do. It floats, although rather nicely, through ambient worlds, drifting slowly with Neige’s clean voice obscuring the work beneath it. The guitars themselves have trouble mustering up anything valuable from the mediocre soundscapes. The final song shows precisely why the second half of the record fails to live up to high expectations as it plays out, to me, like an average Novembre song would. Clean vocals, clean instrumentation led by a forgettable guitar and background bass. Nothing too special. Thankfully however, the first half more than makes up for the forgettable ending. Not on the same level as the debut, but good regardless and here’s to hoping when I see Alcest live next month that the performance in the flesh raises my opinion of the material.

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