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Akercocke – Antichrist

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Antichrist
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Antichrist
  • Year of Release: 2007
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Earache
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: MOSH347CDL

After four albums of increasingly progressive and free-wheeling death metal, Akercocke clearly felt that it was time to rein in the experimentation, and instead of continuing to expand their sound by incorporating additional outside influences into their increasingly diverse sound, the band apparently felt that the time was right to narrow the focus and deliver what is, at least by Akercocke’s standards, a fairly straightforward death metal album. Of course, straightforward death metal in the hands of Akercocke is still unfeasibly intricate and dynamic in comparison to the more atavistic elements of the genre, but it does mean, for the first time in their career, that the band take a step, if not exactly backwards, certainly sideways. In terms of the quality of the music itself, it is of course significantly better than functional – the band may be cruising in fourth gear, but they are running on an engine built by master craftsmen from the best available materials. For listeners such as myself, however, that had followed the band’s increasingly wild sound with enraptured interest, Antichrist cannot help but be tinged with a small amount of disappointment that Akercocke have not ventured further still into the unknown, instead preferring to revisit familiar vistas and well-trodden paths.

Setting aside the question of whether this is the Akercocke album I want it to be, and focussing instead on the Akercocke album it actually is reveals a core of molten death metal, contained within a succinct and streamlined package. The frivolities and fripperies of their third and fourth albums have been excised completely, and the psychedelic satanic warriors seem to have had the idealism and exoticism knocked out of them, responding with a taut set of muscular and largely memorable songs. The first track proper, following the de rigeur intro, is a perfect example of this. Exploding into life on the back of an extended tom fill that acts as a perfect tip of the hat to the master, Dave Lombardo, ‘Summon The Antichrist’ dissolves prime Floridian death metal into an already heady solvent of technical, but grooving Suffocation-style riffery, and the resulting compound is absolutely explosive. Vocalist Jason Mendonca pours his scornful vocals across the band’s hellish soundtrack, and once again Akercocke demonstrate their mastery of the form, successfully blending vicious aggression with unforgettable hooks, and viscous, chunky rhythmic motifs in a way that is simply beyond the reach of most bands. Where Choronzon or Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone might have used this foundation to build new worlds of progressive metal though, their tendrils reaching out to pull in sounds and tones from more esoteric sources, this track (and the majority of its counterparts across the rest of the album) is a fairly linear journey, the usual twists and turns confined to some fiddly Absu-inspired riffing working in contrast with an unusually rudimentary drum pattern, and a brief foray into the kind of haunting atmospherics that offer a slightly nostalgic throwback to the spectacular days that gave us their career-best The Goat Of Mendes. As undeniably exhilarating as this more sleek incarnation of Akercocke is, it is difficult to avoid posing the question of whether, in casting off the experimentation, something essential has been lost from the core of the band?

This is a question that I return to throughout Antichrist, a loose thread that I can’t help absentmindedly playing with, despite the attendant ever-present and irreversible risk that pulling it too hard could destroy the entire structure. The case for the defence rests on a clutch of tracks that, simply put, are unimpeachable Akercocke classics, and spectacular additions to a back catalogue that needs little burnishing. The first of these is the magnificent ‘Axiom’ which would be a fine candidate were one required to select a single track from the band’s discography which most effectively encompasses all dimensions of the band’s wide-ranging sound. Akercocke’s metallic credentials have never been in question, but were a particularly dim-witted listener to challenge them, the punchy, galloping thrash riff that surges into life in a flurry of legato runs and pinch harmonics part way through the track would be the perfect riposte. As ever though, part of the impact of such a thrilling riff is the contrast that it draws in comparison with that which precedes it. Rarely a band to simply put their pedal to the metal in a heads down race to the end, ‘Axiom’ pulls the listener in via the intriguingly incongruous combination of pretty, clean guitar arpeggios and constantly rumbling double-bass work, courtesy as ever of the extremely proficient David Gray. A soaring vocal melody continues this juxtaposition, working against a churning post-metal chord sequence in a way that is obviously Akercockian, but simultaneously somehow novel for the band, before the aforementioned grin-inducing thrash sees the band move from 0-60mph in a fashion marginally quicker, but significantly more satanic than a high performance sports car. If this were not enough, the latter part of the song sees the band giving free rein to their predilection for squelchy electro and dissonant guitars, and this is augmented by an elastic bassline from new member Peter Benjamin. ‘Axiom’ welds clever composition to immense groove and feel in a way that cannot but satisfy even the seasoned Akercocke obsessive. Moreover, the lyrics also stake out a clear philosophical position that compliments the musical vision of the band, elegantly quoting Bertrand Russell with the lines “I believe that when I die I shall rot / And nothing of my ego shall survive”. One might mistakenly read nihilism into a statement that in fact opens up endless possibilities and removes limitations, urging humanity to maximise the pursuit of pleasure during the only life that we have.

Similarly inspiring is ‘The Dark Inside’, which experiments with a much more rough and ready sound than the progressive precision that Akercocke have become known for. The heavily rhythmic, almost mechanised d-beat of the verse is redolent of classic Ministry, spliced with an aggressive punk-metal feel that approximates Chaos A.D. era Sepultura, minus the tribal elements. The unstoppable forward momentum of the propulsive riffing suggests that the guitars are locked on to a track from which there is no escape; every note, every beat is as inexorable as it is powerful. As if to underscore this more animalistic approach, Mendonca’s vocals are some of the most feral that he has ever committed to tape, approaching the intensity of Blasphemy, or even Revenge, not bands that Akercocke typically belong in the same sentence as. Generally speaking, when Blasphemy are desecrating cemeteries in preparation for their nefarious rituals, Akercocke are more likely to be found reclining in the drawing room with a full-bodied Bordeaux, discussing Rimbaud and Flaubert, and it is gratifying here to observe Akercocke briefly allowing prominence to the beast that inhabits all of us, a beast that has perhaps been a little repressed of late. As they tend to at their best, Akercocke then move effortlessly from the bestial to the beautiful, as shimmering indie guitars and honeyed clean vocals transport us immediately into more tranquil climes, before the band return to their roots, unleashing a pulverising syncopated death metal riff of the kind that is positioned in the exact midpoint of the admittedly minimal distance between Morbid Angel and Slayer. The stampede becomes a lumbering lurch, the sound of an awoken giant learning to walk, before destroying everything in its path as the berserker metal of the earlier part of the track returns for a triumphant conclusion.

‘My Apterous Angel’ is further evidence of Akercocke’s mind-boggling versatility, and distinguishes itself with the most jaw-dropping segment of the entire record, a staggeringly clever instrumental section, as a brutal single note caveman riff is dramatically spun into a dissonant and considerably more complex version of the same progression, to ridiculously exciting effect. Were the entire album this dazzling in scope and execution, Antichrist would perhaps take The Goat Of Mendes‘s crown as the band’s greatest achievement. However, although the tracks which complete the album are well-performed death metal, they are not very much more than that, contenting themselves with replicating their influences, as opposed to transcending them. ‘Man Without Faith Or Trust’ demonstrates Akercocke’s enduring ability to compose memorably sinister death metal riffs, but offers little more than catchy brutality, and although ‘Footsteps Resound In An Empty Chapel’ improves on this in a dizzying technical blitzkrieg of prog-thrash, it’s difficult to avoid the nagging feeling that the band are breaking no new ground here. Where once every track promised to journey to unexplored realms, this time round they are returning to familiar destinations, albeit displaying the benefits of the intimate knowledge of the regular visitor, although the wide-eyed wonder of the first-time traveller is now lost. Even the atmospheric interludes feel like a somewhat lazy retread of the evocative sounds of Choronzon, and consequently cannot reach the heights that they ascend to on that album. Even the selection of the tracks covered on the special edition of Antichrist are somewhat obvious – Morbid Angel’s ‘Chapel Of Ghouls’ and the title-track from Death’s Leprosy. There is of course nothing wrong with paying tribute to your forbears, and I suppose it’s possible that these covers introduced some fans to these untouchable giants of the genre, but apart from some spooky synths added to the former, Akercocke play it disappointingly straight, delivering admirable but uninspiring versions of unimprovable songs. How much more interesting it might have been to hear them cover something from outside the genre, identifying and honouring a kindred spirit in ideology, if not in sound.

It is important to clarify in conclusion, that Antichrist is not a poor album. It is in fact an excellent piece of work that even at its most generic conceives and executes extreme metal at a level well beyond the abilities of the majority of death metal acts. However, for the first time in their discography, the only real surprise to be found here is the fact that there is very little surprising about Antichrist, and for a band as ambitious as Akercocke, this feels like the first retrograde step in a career that has hitherto only moved in one direction. Perhaps they felt like they had taken the experimentation as far as they could under the Akercocke banner, and it’s easy to understand the attraction and challenge of creating such a tight and concise statement after several albums of increasingly intricate and progressive music. Seen in this light, Antichrist is indeed successful – an easily digestible blast of pure Akercocke, each track reduced only to its most integral parts. Were this the first of their albums that I heard, it is easy to envisage the delight with which this listener would have embraced such an overwhelming display of death metal dominance. However, in light of the greater triumphs that came before Antichrist, it cannot help but marginally pale in comparison, the band scaling Kilimanjaro, having summited Everest previously. A harsh judgement certainly, but then Akercocke have earned the dubious right to be judged to a higher standard than lesser bands. Expectations were met, but this time, they were not exceeded.

Score: 82%

Alice Cooper – Love It To Death

Author: BD Joyce

Alice Cooper – Love It To Death
  • Artist: Alice Cooper
  • Album: Love It To Death
  • Year of Release: 1971
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Warner
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 07599271872

1971 saw Alice Cooper approaching something of a crossroads, with perhaps their long-term career dependent on them choosing the correct path. Following two albums of adequate psychedelic rock, which showed glimpses of what they could become, not least in their innate ability to craft a melodic hook within a framework of wild, unrestrained rock ‘n’ roll, continuing straight down the road immediately in front of them might represent the path of least resistance, but at the same time, it was likely that the band would struggle to travel fast enough to escape the pull of their influences. Fortunately for the rest of the hard rock universe, before Alice Cooper made their decision on which way to turn, they met a young man by the name of Bob Ezrin. Ezrin was nineteen years old, and boasted little track record in the music industry that Alice Cooper were trying to navigate their way through. As out of demand then, as he is in demand now, Ezrin was not the band’s first choice to produce Love It To Death, but the band were the beneficiary of the lack of interest on the part of Jack Richardson, who sent the rookie Ezrin in his stead. Ezrin’s presence in the control room was considerably more than incidental, however, and indeed so integral did he become to Alice Cooper, that the man himself has referred to Ezrin as their “George Martin”, and his influence on the band was as profound as Martin’s own influence was on The Beatles. It is, quite simply, impossibly to imagine Alice Cooper’s storied discography and enduring career without the input of man who may have had no production credits prior to Love It To Death, but did his job so successfully, that just a decade later, he had manned the desk for such luminaries as Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed and, most importantly of all, the Rock Horror Picture Show‘s Tim Curry.

Ezrin’s biggest contribution to what became the unmistakeable sound of Alice Cooper lies in his unstinting dedication to persuading the band to ditch their psychedelic jams in favour of a more straight-to-the-point take on the kind of Detroit rock ‘n’ roll that the band were now surrounded by, after their relocation to Michigan, from the rather less sympathetic climes of Los Angeles. It was not that the band didn’t have it in them – a handful of tracks from their first two records present clear evidence that Alice Cooper could adopt a more focussed and aggressive approach when the mood took them, but it seems that they needed a certain amount of encouragement to convince them to stop hedging their bets on the more eclectic, genre-hopping sound that characterised their early work. Ezrin was prepared to persuade, and his lengthy, enforced rehearsal sessions eventually saw the band come round to his way of thinking, and recognise not only the power of tight, concise songwriting, but the power that they were able to generate when they devoted their energy and considerable talents to the conventionally-structured pop song. With the dynamic of the band shifted accordingly, and their avant-garde sensibilities used as adornments to decorate the song, rather than as the central framework on which the melodies were hung, Alice Cooper attained their final form, a versatile hard rock band, with a penchant for the theatrical, and a weird streak just wide enough to intrigue, but not to repel the masses.

Although ‘Caught In A Dream’ exhibits all of elements that come together to make Love It To Death the superb album that it is, it’s a blockbuster chorus away from being the song that Alice Cooper so badly want it to be, and is ultimately one of the less memorable tracks on the album, and a very slightly false start, despite the half-smiles that begin to form as the listener recognises the potential latent in a glam stomp reminiscent of the sound that the Mick Ronson-assisted David Bowie will adopt in a few short years. If ‘Caught In A Dream’ sees the engines started and the countdown commencing though, this particular oddity blasts into the stratosphere as soon as the downbeat, but unmistakeable opening chords of ‘I’m Eighteen’ ring out. Without doubt, the first truly canonical song of the band’s back catalogue, ‘I’m Eighteen’ sees the band’s longstanding ability to craft infectious vocal melodies meet their new-found enthusiasm for conventional song structures head-on, and the results of that highly successful union is a track that sounds both classic and fresh half a century later. There’s more to the song’s enduring appeal than simply a catchy hook though. What makes ‘I’m Eighteen’ such an achievement is the way in which Alice Cooper’s lyric and vocal perfectly express the petulant alienation of small-town youth. There are, of course, numerous songs which celebrate the carefree nature of teenage existence, but ‘I’m Eighteen’ seems, in some respects at least, more authentic, for the way in which it gives voice to anxieties and difficulties inherent to a segment of the population that are perceived by the rest of the adult population as naive and innocent, while at the same time they are dealing with incipient adulthood, outgrowing the childhood that so constrained them. As Cooper sings, “I got a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart / Took eighteen years to get this far / Don’t always know what I’m talking about / Feels like I’m livin’ in the middle of doubt”. His intonation of the excellent chorus is both defiant and weary, a true portrayal of the human experience, and as such, although Cooper himself may be much closer to 80, ‘I’m Eighteen’ remains a timeless classic that speaks to each successive generation of teenagers anew.

‘I’m Eighteen’ is not the only utterly essential Alice Cooper classic housed by Love It To Death. At the other end of the record, penultimate track ‘The Ballad Of Dwight Fry’ may not have had the gigantic commercial success of ‘I’m Eighteen’, never having been released as a single, and lacking the immediacy and pop nous of that particular track, as well as showing a more progressive and darker side to the band, but it is at least that track’s equal in terms of pure quality, and indeed it is the band’s ability to write classic album tracks such as this that have allowed Alice Cooper to remain at the top of the hard rock tree for so long. Their breadth gifts them the ability to craft live sets that reward the hardcore fan with a mixture of the easy pleasures of the singalong anthems designed to rouse the entire crowd, together with the depth of the lesser-known album tracks, which are compelling in a different way. Indeed, ‘The Ballad Of Dwight Fry’ became a key set piece in the band’s shocking (for the time) live show, during which Cooper was dragged off stage by a ‘nurse’, only to re-appear in a straitjacket that he ultimately escaped from, no doubt to the acclaim of the baying mob. Taking inspiration, once again, from the Broadway shows that so inspired the band as teenagers, it is the obvious theatricality of the song that enabled it to be used in such a way during their live show, a quality that set Alice Cooper apart from many of their hard rock peers in 1970. These peers, Steppenwolf and Humble Pie for example, tended to minimise the differentiation between band and audience, presenting themselves as bands of the people, as opposed to high concept artists, whereas Alice Cooper emphasised the other-worldly qualities that set them apart from the crowds. Although the theatrical rock show would become an all-conquering cultural phenomenon later in the decade (turbo-charged by Kiss’s larger than life characters and thermonuclear pyrotechnics), perhaps only David Bowie at this time offered the rock ‘n’ roll youth a similar avenue of escapism. In its use of an insane asylum setting, with a disembodied voice appearing in the introduction to wonder aloud “Where’s Daddy?”, one can draw a direct line from Alice Cooper to the heavier side of the musical spectrum that would pick up some of the threads woven by the band, and King Diamond in particular shows a clear debt to Alice Cooper’s creepy storytelling, even if the music itself owes rather more to NWOBHM and thrash than Alice Cooper’s more conventional hard rock. Quite apart from what it allowed Alice Cooper to do with their live show though, the track itself is a great example of the kind of interesting and sophisticated work that listeners familiar only with the slightly more basic likes of ‘School’s Out’ and ‘Elected’ may be completely unaware that Alice Cooper are capable of. The initial sections of the song combine acoustic strumming and electrified open chords to great textural effect, before a sky-scraping chorus with heroic lead guitar melodies takes the song to unexpected places, veering away from the obvious in a way that surprises and delights. Cooper’s vocal is staggering, hitting the notes with ease, but imbuing every line with enormous personality. When Cooper adds a stutter to the line “I’d give her back all of her play things / Even… even the ones I stole”, it speaks of the attention to detail that the band (along with producer Ezrin) are now in a position to apply to their composition and arrangements, and ‘The Ballad Of Dwight Fry’ as a result is a towering example of classic rock that stands alongside anything else released during that era, and continues to shine with undimmed lustre today.

Aside from the bizarre and unnecessary inclusion of the band’s cover of Rolf Harris’s ‘Sun Arise’ that closes the record in a shower of happy-clappy hippie bullshit, the only charitable reading of which is that Alice Cooper are satirising the kind of sentiment embodied by flower power, by setting the naive optimism of such a song against a backdrop of real-world darkness, there is very little fat on Love It To Death. Not all of the tracks can credibly be claimed to be classic, but the vast majority of them are at worst extremely good, and show Alice Cooper for the first time to be a band that are capable of the kind of coherent statement that their first two albums failed to get within a universe of making. The jaunty, organ-augmented 60s workout of ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ is huge fun, Cooper’s vocal rhythms and phrasing elevating the song to a level that the music alone would not quite merit, and the expert and elegantly wasted rock ‘n’ roll of ‘Second Coming’ contains the kind of brief snatches of twin lead guitar work that would become commonplace in the heavy metal that would shortly take many of the components of the Alice Cooper sound, and recast as part of a sonic framework that prioritised the riff above all else. Best of all though, is the riotous noise that constitutes ‘Is It My Body’, which combines a Cooper vocal that is by turns domineering and amusing, with a filthy garage-rock riff that sounds like The Stooges playing The Rolling Stones, and creates a primal magic that is every bit as glorious as that description sounds like it should be. Of particular note is Neal Smith’s outrageously groovy drum part, which swings with sibilant hi-hat hisses, and precision snare cracks in a way that would not shame a Motown rhythm section; the perfect demonstration of a drum part which sits squarely in the pocket, adding the final irresistible element to a display of rock ‘n’ roll supremacy that would be enticing enough without it.

The very title of Love It To Death demands the acclaim that the music thankfully merits, and the leering band of misfits that populate the front cover of the record almost dare the listener to try and deny the raw and majestic power that Alice Cooper are now able to draw upon. No true student of rock ‘n roll could realistically play Judas Iscariot to Alice Cooper’s messianic pull however, and after two records that showed promise and a degree of songcraft, but little appetite to edit their own worst impulses, the band have produced their first virtually unmitigated triumph at the third attempt. Indeed, Love It To Death was to be the start of a short golden period for the band up to the point at which they went their separate ways, following the classic Billion Dollar Babies, only two years later. Even the best songs on Easy Action, however, gave little clue of the stunning leap in quality that the band would be capable of, once their freewheeling eclecticism was given a little discipline by the twin influences of Bob Ezrin and their Detroit-based peers, and their rapid development is a salutary tale for all of the record labels that have ever written off talented, but wayward bands on the back of an underpowered debut, or a rushed follow-up. The album absolutely shines with the confidence and conviction of a band that realised that they had found their sound, and were determined to ensure that every single person on the planet would have the opportunity to hear it, and the vibrancy and vitality that explodes from the speakers with every note played means that Love It To Death is an ageless, deathless work of art.

Score: 87%

Alice Cooper – Easy Action

Author: BD Joyce

Alice Cooper – Easy Action
  • Artist: Alice Cooper
  • Album: Easy Action
  • Year of Release: 1970
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Bizarre / Straight
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 8122 79927 0

In the days before the marketing of albums was extensively planned, with the release date selected to maximise the impact of a record in a crowded marketplace, and an extensive touring cycle designed to wring every last drop of value out of a new set of songs, it wasn’t unusual for productive writers to release records within months of each other, each one hanging on to the coattails of the last. Easy Action, Alice Cooper’s second album, was released only 9 months after the interesting, but inconsequential, Pretties For You, to another collective shrug of the shoulders, and a general lack of acclaim and commercial success. Indeed, had it not been for the stratospheric success that the band (and post-1975 the man) enjoyed, thanks to the stellar run of albums that immediately followed this one, it is unlikely that anybody would be writing about it 50 years after its release, the album contributing, as it does, very little to the canon of rock ‘n’ roll. If the band’s output from Love It To Death onwards is a substantial tree trunk, with numerous bands and careers sprouting from it, inspired by the sound and striking image of Alice Cooper, Easy Action is but a small branch, connected to the trunk, but stunted, and growing no new life itself.

None of which is to say that the music is not enjoyable in and of itself, but simply that with the benefit of five decades of distance, we can see that Easy Action has cast no real shadow, it is but a translucent totem, bending, if not breaking in the wind. Viewed with that same distance, however, the importance of the album to the band’s career is clear. Easy Action is the slightly rickety rope bridge between the Syd Barrett worship and clumsy psychedelia of the band’s initial attempts at songwriting, and the lean, lithe hard rock that they would hitherto adopt wholesale, although the brief journey from the crumbling promontory that they are reluctantly vacating on their way to the continent that they would shortly conquer does at least, however transiently, offers some glorious views. The same bridge also contains a handful of rotting planks to be avoided on the route across, lest they give way and send the band and listener hurtling towards the abyss, but the thrill of imminent danger at least lends the album a frisson of excitement that is more fully developed on Alice Cooper’s next release, and arguably enhances the enjoyment of what is again a somewhat uneven and incoherent album.

The rather unbalanced nature of the album is perfectly encapsulated by the first three tracks, all enjoyable shorn of their context on this particular record, but so different in tonality and feel that the listener would be hard-pushed to identify Alice Cooper as the artist for all of them. Such heterogeneity doesn’t automatically have to been seen as a negative attribute of an album – The Beatles self-titled ‘White Album’ is perhaps the best example of successfully blending virtually the entire gamut of popular music to that point into a single release, but where The Beatles unerring ability to bend sub-genres to their will ensures that tracks with as little in common as ‘Piggies’ and ‘Dear Prudence’ somehow all retain a common thread which ties them all together, this is not the case with Easy Action, the huge stylistic jumps from track to track feeling unavoidably jarring and uncomfortable. One suspects that this is because the band are still in search of their true voice, and indeed, once they locate this, they are able to demonstrate how adept they become at replicating The Beatles’ trick on Billion Dollar Babies, which feels totally coherent, not just despite, but because of its variety.

So although the piano-led shuffle of ‘Mr. & Misdemeanor’, the breezy West Coast latin-inflected rock of ‘Shoe Salesman’ and the Beefheartian psychedelia of ‘Still No Air’ fail, perhaps unsurprisingly, in spite of their not inconsiderable charms, to hang together, there are a number of facets to Easy Action that form a lasting connection to the band’s later career. Firstly, the band’s predilection for Broadway musicals comes to the fore, most specifically Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s magisterial West Side Story. Inspired by the ‘us against the world’ gang mentality, Alice Cooper will return to the soundtrack that so inspired them on School’s Out‘s ‘Gutter Cat Vs. The Jets’, but at this point in their career, their devotion is shown by the naming of the album itself, a direct quote from the film version of West Side Story, while the aforementioned ‘Still No Air’ injects a finger-clicking interlude into the jittery tension of the rambling acid-rock, throwing out yet more quotes from the film. Although the cinematic scope and dramatic dynamics of the music itself are clearly huge influences on the band, it is no coincidence, given their attachment to Broadway, that Alice Cooper (the band, and then the man) would become known for their theatricality, from the make-up and gaudy stage-clothes of the early days, to the highly-choreographed set pieces of Cooper’s arena-filling show that endure to this day.

Moving away from the theatre, Easy Action also features several tracks that bring us, for the first time, the Alice Cooper voice that becomes the Alice Cooper voice from Love It To Death onwards. Still not confident enough to completely discard the Syd Barrett imitations wholesale, or the Lennon and McCartney harmonies that pepper the album, ‘Mr. & Misdemeanour’ does provide a glimpse behind the curtain at least, Cooper’s raw lasciviousness pre-figuring the leering style that he is now known for, still melodic and at times unexpectedly affecting, but his and his alone. We hear the same on the superb ‘Return Of The Spiders’, the track on the album that most signposts the way to the sound that they will soon popularise, but elsewhere, the band’s inveterate inclination to experiment, and utilise other voices as if they were running through options for wearing their hair, sees Cooper adopting an understated and even camp tone on the slightly bizarre ‘Beautiful Flyaway’. This curious song sounds not unlike an outtake from Sparks’ Kimono My House, a sound utterly natural for the Mael Brothers, but ill-fitting for Alice Cooper, even if, as ever, their knack of creating a catchy melody out of the most unpromising components ensures that the song is certainly not forgettable.

Despite the odd miss-step though, much more so than previous album Pretties For You, the best songs are both a huge step forward in terms of both pure quality, and also in terms of the band’s slightly circuitous voyage of discovery that ultimately resulted in them locating the sound that had been waiting for them to arrive. The first indication that something more interesting is within the band’s grasp is the fantastic ‘Below Your Means’. Although Alice Cooper’s vestigial tendency to lapse into aimless psychedelia means that the final minutes of the track travel rather too near to dreary ‘jam’ territory, it is not enough to undo the work of the rest of the song, which seamlessly combines a latin-inflected take on mid-period Beatles, with a heart-wrenchingly delicate slide guitar line, opening out into the kind of spindly lead work that Tom Verlaine based the entirety of Marquee Moon around, all floating on a thrusting garage rock groove. Clearly realising they were on to something, ‘Return Of The Spiders’ takes a similarly pulsating garage sound, but ratchets up the aggression and excitement. Thematically a nod to one of the band’s previous incarnations, The Spiders, the track is pivotal not just to Easy Action, but to the rest of Alice Cooper’s career. Having upped sticks from Phoenix to Los Angeles, in search of the patronage and record deal that they did indeed secure, by the release of their second album, the band had become disillusioned with life in the city of angels, and were on the verge of a fateful move north-east to Detroit. That city may be little more than a post-industrial wasteland these days, but in 1970 it was busy acting as a crucible for the invention of punk by The Stooges and the MC5, a good half a decade before The Damned released New Rose. Paradoxically, by looking backwards to pre-Alice Cooper days, the band in fact found their way forwards. Their electrifying take on 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, shot through with the kind of reckless nihilism that was the inevitable result of the 1970s bleak riposte to the hippie dream, makes it clear that a stripped back sound heavy on groove, but light on the kind of whimsy endemic to Easy Action and its predecessor, was absolutely where Alice Cooper’s talents lay. Although this facet of their sound failed to re-appear on this album, mere months later, they would mine this sound for gold on Love It To Death, and a legend would be born, only a little overdue.

Easy Action is a better record than Pretties For You. It repeats some of the same mistakes, and although the most egregious homages to early Pink Floyd have mostly been excised, what is left is still a mediocre hodgepodge, which covers a lot of ground, but without staying in any one place for long enough to truly establish a home. All of which is perfectly acceptable when everything falls into place, as it quite often does, and coincides with the nascent songwriting ability of a band that clearly have great potential. Too often though, the band’s impact is stymied by Alice Cooper’s almost self-sabotaging inability to play to their obvious strengths, not to mention the slightly contrived nature of some of the more freakish moments, even if they are less self-consciously off the wall than elements of the previous record. The high points of the album are worth discovering though, and although it would be an exaggeration to suggest that Easy Action is an underrated triumph, it is not outlandish to suggest that it is under-appreciated, and very much worth seeking out, assuming the listener is already familiar with Alice Cooper’s more obviously essential output.

Score: 64%

Alice Cooper – Pretties For You

Author: BD Joyce

Alice Cooper – Pretties For You
  • Artist: Alice Cooper
  • Album: Pretties For You
  • Year of Release: 1969
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Bizarre / Straight
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 08122799271

Alice Cooper. A man who transcends the hard rock scene with which he is synonymous, recognisable to millions whether they are familiar with his music or not, perhaps more famous as a personality than for the undoubted quality of his songs. A man who embodies so many contradictions. A fearsome frontman with a name that conjures images of innocent young maidens, a shock rocker that was once the living embodiment of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle who has been living clean for over half of his career, and a figure often derided by the ignorant as simply a heavy metal singer, who not only pre-dated, but inspired the metal that he is associated with, while all the while sitting on a stupendous a back catalogue of glorious diversity, that at its peak stands comparison with the best music ever committed to tape. Above all, Cooper is a man to be treasured; a classic songwriter who has never stopped touring and recording new music, and represents an unbroken link back to the astounding creative explosion of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll, when the established forms of rhythm ‘n’ blues and popular music that had generated such excitement in the youth of the western world met the free-wheeling experimentalism and widely available narcotics of the more permissive Sixties and music splintered into the universe of infinite possibilities that continues to expand to this day.

Even despite Cooper’s ongoing musical restlessness though, which has seen him embrace hair metal, new wave and industrial sounds across over a career lasting more than fifty years, while returning periodically to the theatrical hard rock that has generally defined his greatest moments, referring only to the man overlooks another integral part of the early phase of his career. For, although Alice Cooper is the name that the listener can trace down the spine of one’s chosen medium from Pretties For You onwards; at the time of release, the name referred to the whole band, not simply the stage name of Vincent Furnier. And although, to an extent, Cooper’s band have been hired hands since the onset of his solo career with 1975’s classic Welcome To My Nightmare, it would be grossly unfair to apply the same description to the musicians that played such a huge role in the stunning development of the band’s songwriting across 6 albums in a barely credible 4 years. Lead guitarist Glen Buxton and bassist Dennis Dunaway, in particular, show themselves to be outstanding and versatile musicians, as well as writers and co-writers of some of the songs that remain Alice Cooper (the man)’s most enduring works, and although they may not have the recognition that Alice Cooper (the man) enjoys as a result of his striking image and continuing commercial success, they deserve to be remembered as significantly more than a footnote in the story of how Alice’s wonderland was created.

And it was very much something that was created, through experimentation and trial and error, rather than something that arrived fully-formed and ready for mass consumption. Pretties For You is never less than interesting, but it is fundamentally an uneven document of a band in thrall to their influences, and struggling to find their own voice. By the time that their third album Love It To Death was released just two short years later, this voice had been well and truly located, and amplified magnificently, but on their debut, the voice is sometimes more of an impersonation. Most frequently, it is Pink Floyd’s wayward genius Syd Barrett that Cooper is channelling, but the spectre of The Beatles (most obviously, their album Revolver) also looms large throughout the record, although the overall effect is endearing, as opposed to off-putting, as Alice Cooper’s obvious devotion to those that inspired them comes through as a warm-hearted tribute more than anything more cynical. Although Alice Cooper’s off-kilter psychedelia may seem an odd starting point for their more conventional later direction, it makes considerably more sense in light of the fact that alongside the two albums that followed, Pretties For You was released on Frank Zappa’s fairly short-lived Straight Records imprint, itself a part of the rather less unconventional Warner Brothers corporation, despite the impressive nature of the Warner roster at that time. Despite some similarities between Zappa’s own early material and Alice Cooper’s sound at this time, Zappa is said to have signed the band on reputation rather than because he was especially taken with their direction, and it did little harm to Alice Cooper’s long-term prospects when Straight Records was fully subsumed into Warner in 1973.

Pretties For You may be inconsistent in some respects, and this includes the calibre of the songwriting as well as the wild sonic variations that occur from track to track, but there is plenty to enjoy, as well as a few well-hidden clues that help the listener to retrospectively track the circuitous path that the band took to the 1970s hit-making hard rock behemoth that they became. The clues are none more obvious than those provided by the song that was released as the album’s first single, ‘Reflected’. The titular similarity to the rather more well-known ‘Elected’ from the majestic Billion Dollar Babies is no coincidence. In fact ‘Elected’ lifts and recontextualises the chorus melody of its gentler and less strident predecessor, refashioning the promising, but aimless, ‘Reflected’ into a pounding rock classic. Comparing and contrasting the two songs is the perfect demonstration of how Alice Cooper mutated from an entertaining, but haphazard psychedelic journeymen into a tight and focussed outfit, discarding many of the signifiers of the late-60s acid-fried sonics, such as the layers of sound effects swirling around the mix and the improvised feel of the arrangements, in favour of a lean, mean groove, and a greater emphasis on simple, but outrageously catchy vocal and lyrical hooks. ‘Reflected’ is the primordial soup from which the later version of Alice Cooper evolved; all of the elements required to build the band already existed, not least the keen melodic sense that would only be sharpened over time, but they had not yet been moulded into a viable form.

Although the scattershot nature of Pretties For You ultimately means that the album as a whole fails to coalesce into a single clear musical statement, in some respects the way in which the record jumps between different styles gives it a certain charm, and when this charm coincides with interesting ideas, and memorable vocal lines, which it frequently does, the results are difficult to resist. ‘Swing Low, Sweet Cheerio’ belies its irksome title with a driving take on the kind of latin-inflected West Coast folk-rock sound typified by Love’s Forever Changes, shot through with elements of the British invasion bands, while Cooper’s vocal is pleasingly sincere and restrained, a world away from the Syd Barrett impressions that crop up at various points on the album. Similarly, the excellent ‘Fields Of Regret’ is one of the heaviest things on the album, hefty rhythms propelling a Spector-like wall of sound, with blazing lead guitar work pulling the whole thing together into an authentic slice of psychedelia, which would comfortably soundtrack a montage of clips of that swinging decade, images of bubbling lava lamps bleeding into shots of the beatific faces of idealistic hippies, before the psychotic break of the latter section of the track sees Woodstock transformed into Altamont, as whispered voices and unconventional guitar sounds presage a fevered climax in which the band allow themselves free rein to explore the outer limits in a way that is rarely heard during the rest of their discography. In fact, Alice Cooper’s nomadic approach to song composition begs the question of when sonic experimentation in mainstream rock became so frowned upon. Even the best rock ‘n’ roll records released in the 21st century tend to rely heavily on unchanging guitar sounds, modern guitarists evincing a strange aversion to altering any of the dials on their rig, real or virtual, for fear that they will never again chance upon the perfect tone that they place so much faith in. This stands in stark contract to the kind of unfettered exploration that Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and even Kurt Cobain made such a key component of classic rock, guitar tones mutating wildly from song to song, to the point where textures and experimental effects produced by patched together equipment often became the hook that a song was built around. This kind of approach to the instrument does of course still exist, but the kind of heavy rock and metal that is ultimately derived from these trailblazing artists is often mystifyingly conservative given the ingenuity of those that they seek to emulate.

The best and most enduring moments on Pretties For You are the ones which see the band’s own inchoate personality transcend their clear influences. Outside of the loping hard rock of ‘Reflected’, already discussed at length, ‘Levity Ball’ is a mature and memorable song which develops a skittish instrumental introduction into sing-song verses of almost childlike simplicity, before the trenchant chorus emerges through the cloak of static and distortion which surrounds the track to deliver the kind of triumphant majesty that would become the band’s default setting only a few years later. By the time Alice Cooper released Billion Dollar Babies in 1973, their composition and arrangements had become considerably more conventional and linear, but the wonky, homespun experimental rock of their debut shows the number of paths available to the band at any given point. The murky blues of the Led Zeppelin-playing-‘Astronomy Domine’ latter half of ‘Levity Ball’ is the kind of moment that would be selected against as the band evolved, but here it delights with an unrestrained ferocity, as well as being genuinely creepy, and very much the product of a time when the hippie dream was beginning to turn sour in the wake of Altamont and the activities of Charles Manson’s family, events that, it could be argued (reductively), ultimately begat the hard rock and metal that Alice Cooper influenced, and later became.

Not unlike the imaginary human that the band’s name is taken from, Alice Cooper’s development could be said to mirror the development of a maturing boy or girl, as they try on a number of incarnations for size, discarding some elements and retaining others. The less successful moments of Pretties For You see the band trying to squeeze themselves into poorly fitting attire – the obvious Lennon and McCartney cribbing of ‘No Longer Umpire’, for example, or the hackneyed Animals impression of ‘Changing Arranging’ which closes the album on a frustrating note. But ultimately, the thrill of Pretties For You is to witness the birth and awkward first steps of a band that would become behemoths of the hard rock world for half a century. It’s not all brilliant. In fact, it’s not even all good, and no doubt the band look back on some of their more gauche Syd Barrett plagiarism as slightly embarrassing in hindsight, but it’s also a necessary step in the journey of a band that became rather more sure-footed in a remarkably short space of time, as well as a fascinating document of the time that is easy to enjoy for what it is. The band had not yet honed their songwriting tools to the fine point that they would soon wield with precision, but their knack for a hook is already apparent, and ensures that the majority of the album is listenable at the very least. And not only that, but it should be celebrated as the album that brings to the world, for the first time, one of the most compelling and fascinating characters in the rock firmament. Alice Cooper.

Score: 61%

Alcest – Spiritual Instinct

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Spiritual Instinct
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Spiritual Instinct
  • Year of Release: 2019
  • Country: France
  • Label: Nuclear Blast
  • Format: Digipak CD
  • Catalogue Number: 27361 50962

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.

Score: 83%

Alcest – Kodama

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Kodama
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Kodama
  • Year of Release: 2016
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO 190

The obvious compromise that was Alcest’s fourth album, the mostly disappointing and rather lacklustre Shelter, betrayed a lack of conviction and confidence in the decision to take something of a sideways step in terms of both the band’s sound and aesthetic. The result was an album that, like a soporific drunk after one Scotch too many, fell awkwardly between two stools, on the one hand showcasing some of the band’s most lightweight and indie-leaning material, and on the other, quickly retreating to something approaching Neige’s comfort zone of swirling, alternative rock-influenced shoegaze. It is no surprise, therefore, to see the band immediately retrench to what they know best on the follow-up to Shelter, 2016’s Kodama. As ever with Alcest, significant attention is given not just to the musical content of the album, but also the way in which it is delivered and presented. As a chef understands that the taste of a dish can be altered in the perception of the diner by the way in which it is arranged on the plate, and indeed the colour and even texture of the plate itself, Neige intuitively recognises that an album’s packaging can be an important part of building the band’s all-important atmosphere. Kodama, therefore, is suitably adorned in a stunning Japanese-themed sleeve, which is both supremely evocative and perfectly matched with this particular iteration of the Alcest sonics. The Japanese influence here is more than just a fetishistic affectation too. Kodama is heavily influenced by Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, and one can understand why Neige is so enamoured with a film that is centred around an enchanted forest, populated by anthropomorphised animals and elemental spirits. In the film, the Kodama are playful forest sprites who share an intimate connection with the gods that are responsible for ensuring that humanity achieve the mutually beneficial equilibrium with the natural world needed to sustain and enhance life. Clearly, Neige identifies some kind of kindred spirit in the Kodama, and the unifying force that this brings to the album is very welcome after the slightly scattershot Shelter.

At the risk of overstating the influence of Princess Mononoke on Kodama, as the title track introduces what is ultimately a relatively short album (something that it shares with the band’s first two efforts), the Alcest sound seems to have taken on some of the darkness of the film that so inspired them. Leaving Shelter as very much the outlier of their discography, the blackgaze atmospheres of the earlier career return, but where previously the dreamy soundscapes seemed to be imbued by an innocent euphoria, Kodama is the more morose and downbeat counterpoint to this. It is apparent now that the first three albums were an effort to recapture the ineffable essence of the journeys to the enchanted land that Neige claims to have visited during his childhood, and to re-construct that world as it was, perhaps to grasp and pull it into this realm. A decade later, however, while Neige seems as eager as ever to musically recreate the land that he is personally so nostalgic for, his songs now betray a certain futility in his chosen mission, an awareness that not only will others never see the universe in the same way in which he does, but also that for all of his efforts, the listener can only ever experience Neige’s world at one step removed, on some level aware of the artifice. And more than that, the air of despair and even despondency that inhabits the entire album seems to speak to a growing suspicion that continuing exposure to this dimension can only serve to weaken the connection to this magical world that has been so all-encompassing.

While the downbeat nature of the record is not without its drawbacks, and indeed over the course of just six songs, it does feel rather suffocating, it does add an intriguing new perspective on a now-familiar sound. Arguably that new perspective is simply the sound of Souvenirs D’Un Autre Monde filtered through The Cure’s Disintegration, but at the very least, it is pleasing not to be confronted with a exact facsimile of their earlier work. Although it is frequently the more obviously mainstream album that attracts tedious ‘sell-out’ accusations (for Alcest that album is clearly Shelter, but we could of course be describing Metallica’s self-titled Black Album, Judas Priest’s Turbo, or even Celtic Frost’s Cold Lake), I would contend that in fact the listener’s ire may sometimes be better directed at the follow-up (immediate or later, depending on the duration of this period in a band’s career) to such albums, where a suitably chastened band retreats with tails firmly between legs, only to be warmly welcomed back into the metal scene like so many victorious soldiers returning from war. Metallica’s Death Magnetic for example, is a perfectly serviceable metal album, even if it is obviously devoid of the kind of magic that they conjured so easily in the mid-1980s, but in comparison to Load, Reload, or even St Anger, it was surely an easy album for the band to release, safe in the knowledge that the merest hint of a more treble-heavy guitar tone and some thrashing tempos would see fans in their droves acclaim the band’s return to heavy metal, their wanderings concluded. It should also be noted that Alcest were hardly the first metal band to so audibly incorporate The Cure’s influence into metal – despite that band historically finding greater kinship across the indie and goth scenes, the darkness that has always been a key component of their frequently haunting dreamscapes and misery-laden lyrics means that they have been comfortable bedfellows for bands across the metal spectrum, with Carpathian Forest’s version of ‘A Forest’ perhaps the most thrilling example of numerous metallic covers of their songs.

Although Alcest don’t actually cover The Cure, almost every track contains a variation on the kind of Eastern-sounding, delay-laden staccato guitar lines that feature most prominently in Disintegration‘s ‘Lullaby’, and the timbre and tonality is so similar that at various points during Kodama, it is difficult not to find one’s mind completing melodic phrases with sections of that track, so strong is the resemblance. This is not to say that Alcest’s re-configuring of this particular sound is not used to great effect though, and the title-track is perhaps the best example. Following a familiar song structure for Alcest, the song moves through a couple of verses and choruses, distinguished mainly by the menacing clipped bassline that dominates the former, while a tranquil chorus neatly resolves the unsettling feel of that which precedes it. The latter half of the song then transitions into a lengthy instrumental section, in which glorious, but unusually stark, guitar figures construct an atmosphere of fierce yearning in the absence of the layers of synths that usually characterise the band’s arrangements. The mellifluous woodwind that adds texture and mystery to the track is yet another nod to Princess Mononoke, giving ‘Kodama’ the air of an alternative soundtrack to the film, something that continues throughout the rest of the album.

‘Kodama’ is an enthralling start, but the album reaches its apex at the halfway point with the stately brilliance of ‘Je Suis D’Ailleurs’. The chord progression is in the Alcest sweet spot of being both vaguely recognisable, but just different enough to stand alone, and the sweeping melodicism contributed by the use of Neige’s higher register in the vocals is wonderful to behold, and possibly marks the only point during the album in which the listener is truly swept away from the quotidian in the way that they might have been continuously by ‘Souvenirs D’Un Autre Monde, or ‘Les Voyages De L’Âme‘. Where ‘Kodama’ deployed a skeletal fragility though, ‘Je Suis D’Ailleurs’ reaches heights of both aggression and grandiosity that the listener may have feared were a thing of the past for Alcest. Initially strongly redolent of Agalloch playing the kind of Cascadian black metal that has been such a popular strain of that particular sub-genre during the last fifteen years, the track ultimately erupts into an utterly majestic and windswept blast, carrying the song forward on waves of tremolo riffing and long-form lead guitar melodies, while continuing to incorporate scales and intervals that tie the track back into the overarching Japanese aesthetic, all of which makes for an absolutely breathless and memorable pinnacle for Kodama as a whole.

Frustratingly though, these heights are so vertiginous because of the fact that they rise to such prominence relative to their surroundings, not unlike Mount Fuji dominating the horizon, overshadowing the Aokigahara Forest which surrounds it. The biggest issue with Kodama is that it is formulaic. Each track follows a similar structure. A downbeat, but still dreamy chord progression lopes its way through verses and choruses, before giving way to several minutes of gradually unfolding instrumental interplay, and the melodies and instrumentation is very similar from track to track. A charitable interpretation of the somewhat repetitive nature of the album would be to suggest that it enhances the way in which Kodama could be seen as an unofficial soundtrack to Princess Mononoke, a companion to the film, in which individual songs are less important than the overall impact of the music, and the way in which it represents the animated images. Seen in this light, with some of the musical motifs of the soundtrack finding their way into the album, Kodama does a credible job of bringing the work that inspired it to life. But purely as a metal album, divorced from a context that many listeners will be unaware of at best, and uninterested in at worst, even across the relatively short running time, there are sections of Kodama which are fundamentally turgid and unmemorable. The vocals bear a considerable amount of the responsibility for this. Alcest’s best songs have always been led by the guitars and (to a lesser degree) the synths, but strong vocal hooks are what elevate them above the ordinary, the counterpoint and complexity of additional harmonic interplay compelling the interest of the listener, as well as providing the unexpected moments of delight that attest to Neige’s mercurial brilliance. These moments of delight do still arise during Kodama – the controlled delicacy of parts of ‘Untouched’ that sound almost as if they have been played by the feathers and bones of dead birds, taking on some of their former beauty; and the final two minutes of ‘Oiseaux De Proie’, a post-apocalyptic minor chord jangle-blast that is utterly magnificent, and would act as a far more suitable conclusion to Kodama than the ambient experiments and backwards masking of ‘Onyx’ which instead closes out an enigma of an album.

Perhaps it was too much to hope that with the band’s indie itch well and truly scratched, Alcest’s return to the sound that suits them so well would be be an unmitigated triumph. It is not, but it is no failure either. Unlike its predecessor, it is a cohesive album, and inarguably delivers Neige’s vision for a Japanese-inflected iteration of their blackgaze sound. There is much to enjoy in the fact that this vision is rendered in starker, more monochrome tones, and it is fascinating to hear Alcest try and deliver the same escapist outcome as they have previously, but via an alternative route. These attempts are not always successful, but they are successful enough that we do not need to write all of Kodama off as a failed experiment, and quite possibly the embryo of future triumphs has been planted in some of the more enjoyable parts of an album that is at times enthralling, even while it verges on tedium at points. One hopes that this is indeed the case. It is, however, difficult to escape the conclusion that Alcest’s most exciting era may already be in the past though, and as such, although Kodama sees an improvement in the calibre of the band’s releases relative to the previous record, it is an improvement that cowers in the looming shadow of their best work.

Score: 63%

Alcest – Shelter

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Shelter
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Shelter
  • Year of Release: 2014
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Digipak CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO143

After three albums of wondrous blackgaze brilliance, slowly developing the core sound established on their debut Souvenirs D’Un Autre Monde into increasingly sophisticated and varied songwriting, Shelter seemed to mark something of a new chapter in the Alcest story. From a particularly uncharitable perspective, one might suggest that Shelter bears all of the hallmarks of what some might consider a ‘sell-out’ attempt. The slightly whimsical and (for non-French monolinguals) mysterious French phrases used to title their albums, so evocative of Neige’s childhood journeys into the fantasy world that inspired his music, have been replaced by a single English word; much more direct, and frankly, marketable. The dreamy hand-drawn artwork of Alcest’s sleeves has also been replaced by a less striking and genre-specific photograph, and the elaborate band logo, for so long an aesthetic connection to the metal scene from which the band emerged, is nowhere to be seen, replaced by bold, but generic, block capitals. In some respects, this apparent bid for popular fame and acclaim is unsurprising. Like Anathema and Ulver before them, Alcest found themselves in the slightly unenviable position of making music that is undoubtedly metal-friendly, but which has an obviously broader appeal to an audience that unfortunately treat them with the kind of suspicion that they would usually reserve for Judas Priest or Cannibal Corpse. Although there are few memorable example of former metal bands that successfully escaped predominantly metal audiences (Queens Of The Stone Age perhaps, although only their debut album could potentially be described as metal, and tenuously at that), it is not totally unrealistic to think that Alcest might yet be one of the first bands to make a successful transition, and presumably it is exactly this line of thinking that resulted in a album that is in some respects noticeably out of step with the rest of their catalogue.

If Shelter was indeed an attempt to break out of metal’s, sometimes self-imposed, musical ghetto though, one senses that it was an attempt that fundamentally lacked confidence and conviction. The speed of the return to the band’s traditional aesthetic that followed on subsequent albums Kodama and Spiritual Instinct certainly suggests that the band themselves were craving a return to their comfort zone, as do Neige’s more recent interviews about this period of the band’s career, but in fact, the biggest indication that the band lacked steadfast belief in the course that they mapped out with Shelter, is the fact that rather than fully embracing the indie-rock sound that could conceivably be a natural development for the band, Shelter finds Alcest hedging their bets, and bouncing between identities old and new, not unlike an insecure teenager trying to find a social grouping in which they feel some kind of kinship. This is most obvious across the first two songs of the record (excluding the short introduction ‘Wings’ which does little more than set the scene for what comes next), where we firstly encounter the band working their way through the most lightweight indie track that they have ever put their name to, followed by an immediate retrenchment to more familiar sounds, albeit with the vestigial metallic structures that once enabled the listener to trace the band’s evolution back to their more extreme roots completely excised.

Following the aforementioned ‘Wings’, which is a perfectly adequate, if not exactly transcendent, attempt at building anticipation, ghostly choral-sounding male and female vocals blending seamlessly, as if to emphasise the band’s innate androgyny, the gradually increasing volume and pitch intimating that the sources of the voices are drawing near, ‘Opale’ instantly dashes the listener’s rising tide of hope on the craggy and unforgiving rocks of disappointment. If Alcest’s music has previously evoked either the fertile and hopeful growth of spring, or the comforting glow of autumn, in keeping with the cover art, ‘Opale’ is redolent of the summer, the least mysterious and interesting of all of the seasons, with its uncomplicated surfeit of unrelenting heat and light. Alcest operate most intriguingly in the shadows, with much of their previous musical appeal emanating from the gradual revelation of the magic at the centre of what they do, but sadly ‘Opale’ is the conjurer showing the audience how it’s done. Sadly, rather than uncovering the beauty that can of course be found in simplicity, one feels only the disappointment of the disappearance of the wondrous illusion. ‘Opale’ is awful, a completely inconsequential track that would be derided as flimsy and weak by Coldplay fans, and which is almost totally forgettable and utterly devoid of the enthralling atmosphere that even Alcest’s less impressive songs have previously summoned so easily. Thankfully, ‘La Nuit Marche Avec Moi’ redresses the balance quickly, and reassuringly confirms that Shelter will not, in its entirety, follow the disastrous template of the track that precedes it. It does not match the calibre of the band’s best efforts, but there are enough hints of Alcest’s more enticing qualities to pique interest for the remainder of the record. Most importantly, Alcest’s singular atmosphere is discernible in the more sophisticated layers of sounds that comprise the track, and it is some evidence at least that Neige has not lost his touch, but simply mislaid it.

If ‘Opale’ gave rise to concerns that it could be the start of a precipitous and potentially terminal decline for Alcest, a once special band lost to an inconsequential future of tedious mediocrity, the rest of the album is in actual fact a fairly logical development of the band’s work prior to this album, albeit a development that fails to compel the kind of unconditional love that Alcest previously engendered so easily. On a small clutch of tracks which represent the best that Shelter has to offer, Alcest do in fact come close to reaching the kind of heights that resulted in the previous albums being subject to the acclaim that they attracted so magnetically, but even these are tainted to a degree by the disappointment that has come before. Interestingly though, excluding the failed experiment of ‘Opale’, already covered in great detail above, the most successful moments of the album arrive when Alcest augment the core sound that has served them so well previously with new elements, not straying so far from their usual dwelling that it becomes a total reinvention, but adding just enough novelty to constitute progression. One such example is ‘Voix Sereine’. By an interstellar distance the best track on the album, the song is Neige’s most enduring marriage yet between the indie-rock that appears to increasingly influence his own music, and the metallic shoegaze that first brought Alcest to our attention. The band gradually feel their way into ‘Voix Sereine’, luxuriating in a gorgeous slow build, meditating on what are uncharacteristically jazzy chord voicings, given their historical reliance on simple minor chords. Things really soar, however, when swells of strings replace Neige’s usual synthetic layers, and the beguiling majesty of the arrangement takes on an aura of class and sophistication that organic instruments can’t help but contribute to, while being at the same time thick with emotion and heavy sentiment. Once more, Alcest prove themselves capable of constructing a soothing and completely enveloping cocoon of sound in which the listener can find total serenity, and when the distortion pedal is stomped floorwards in anger for the first time on the album, commencing a lengthy instrumental workout to close the track, a simple but effective vocal refrain elevates the end result to the kind of celestial heights not reached since ‘Summer’s Glory’, concluded their previous album, but this time with the Smashing Pumpkins vibe taking on a distinct Godspeed You! Black Emperor feel thanks to the richness added by the keening strings.

These hints of 1990s alternative rock surface repeatedly throughout Shelter – the sweetly harmonised vocals of the uplifting chorus that enlivens the earnest, but slightly turgid, title track being another such example – and one imagines that Neige perhaps feels that he has earned the freedom to allow a wider range of influences to be heard in Alcest’s music. While it runs the risk of anchoring a band that have previously been innovative and forward-thinking into a specific and non-contemporary timeframe, it does open up new possibilities for a band that have audibly become stuck in a minor rut of over-familiar melodic choices and song structures, which seem to be something an invisible, but powerful constraint for Neige at this point. And while a string of albums that were essentially variations on a theme never harmed Motörhead or AC/DC, for a band less reliant on the kind of strutting rock ‘n’ roll that is vital enough in its pure energy to render issues of self-plagiarism of minimal concern, it inevitably equates to diminishing returns. Therefore, the best interpretation of Shelter is that it is a necessary stepping stone, a staging post on the road of trial and error leading to the more coherent iteration of the band’s developing sound to be found on the band’s next album, Kodama. Thankfully though, even stepping stones can offer intriguing vantage points on the way to something better, and the better moments of Shelter prove beyond doubt that this is the case. There is nothing to match the majesty of ‘Voix Sereine’, but the final two songs in particular close out the album in some style. ‘Away’ adopts a much starker timbre than Alcest usually embody, the lush soundscapes making way for a beautiful, but lonely, guitar figure that is at once comfortingly familiar, but also thrillingly new. The strings make another appearance, this time adding a pastoral richness to Alcest’s tapestry of sound which is entirely fitting to a song that resonates with the same qualities that made Opeth’s Watershed such a highlight of that band’s more experimental phase, and which also finds room for final a tearjerking modulation that could sound hackneyed in less skilful hands. ‘Délivrance’ doesn’t quite hold the listener in the same thrall, with the first half of the track too sedate for its own good, but the string-augmented conclusion is sublime in a slightly low-key way, as it never quite sweeps us away in an unstoppable torrent of emotion, but nevertheless drags us along happily in its current, floating contentedly in the limpid waters of Neige’s imagination.

The satisfying conclusion cannot, however, mask the fact that Shelter is fundamentally a compromise. Although compromise is, of course, the nature of all collaborative art, and not something that we should be automatically suspicious of, the issue for Alcest is that, at their heart, they are essentially the output of a single person. Therefore, compromise in this instance suggests an air of insincerity that it is difficult for Shelter to totally dispel, and that necessarily influences the judgement of the record as a whole. The is thrown into particularly sharp relief given the all-encompassing nature of three previous albums that offered a fully-immersive and brilliantly realised combination of aesthetics, thematics and music, and it is somewhat surprising to see Neige lose his touch with Shelter, and apparently half-heartedly pursuing commercial success at the risk of permanently destroying everything that has been so carefully built up to this point, or at the very least diminishing Alcest as a comprehensive creative force. That this is not the outcome is due to the fact that Neige does not quite have the courage to follow through fully on the overhaul of the Alcest sound that is threatened by ‘Opale’. Instead, we are left with an album that soars in parts, but is too often held back by quotidian and banal atmospherics, and general lack of truly memorable songs. These misgivings mean that Shelter fails to rise above the mediocre, albeit a mediocre that ultimately culminated in the creative renewal of the band on their next release two short years later.

Score: 60%

Alcest – Les Voyages De L’Âme

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Les Voyages De L’Âme
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Les Voyages De L’Âme
  • Year of Release: 2012
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO122-2

By the time that Alcest released their third album Les Voyages De L’Âme, their reputation was such that it was once of the most anticipated metal (or at the very least metal-adjacent) releases of 2012, their growing legion of fans impatient to discover whether Neige still hoarded any treasures yet to be revealed, or whether his wellspring of inspiration had run dry. The first indication that it would be the former was apparent even before the listener had heard a note, assuming that this book could be judged, at least in part, by the cover. One-time Alcest and Amesoeurs bandmate, general associate, and indeed Les Discrets mainman Fursy Teyssier is responsible for the artwork for the two records that precede this album in the band’s discography, but it is this, his final contribution to the band’s catalogue that stands tallest. A hazy image of an almost bashful peacock, the sun visible through the arch that the peacock stands before, a portal perhaps, to Neige’s fabled fairy land, is immaculately matched to the album’s musical content, the ideal representation of Alcest’s finely wrought, ethereal magic, and a promising portent of the quality of an album that immediately draws the listener across the threshold into Neige’s universe from the very first note picked.

One of the most impressive aspects of Alcest’s career is just how quickly they have established a sound that is so instantly recognisable, while at the same time slowly expanding their own reach. There are now numerous bands that have co-opted elements of what Alcest do into their own compositions, but Alcest themselves operate in such a singular niche that from the moment that Neige’s gentle arpeggio introduces ‘Autre Temps’, joining a soothing wash of synth euphony, it is clear that we could not be listening to any other band. The modern world fades away, and the listener is suspended in the amniotic comfort of the calming melodies and carefully arranged tonal choices of the band. Time slows down, experienced differently in Neige’s world, and the atmosphere is suffused with a sense that anything is possible, and all atoms are simply potential, waiting to be released. The almost folky timbre dissipates as a pretty chord sequence joins the carefully picked guitars, and the unobtrusive rhythm section feels its way into the song, before Neige’s plaintive, but more obviously confident voice details a meandering melody that occupies the space between the instruments with expert precision. Immediately, an increased level of considered sophistication is apparent in the band’s arrangements, as the production allows the vocals to become a focal point in a way that Neige has been reluctant permit previously. This is also demonstrated by the sprinkling of small moments of inspiration throughout the track, all of which enable it to transcend the conventional pop-song structure. The twinkling lead guitar line that appears just once after the first chorus, for example, or the ascending tremolo that adds intensity before the final chorus and demonstrates the kind of sure grasp of drama and dynamics that can only be the result of hours of hard work meeting the lessons of experience. As a statement of intent, if it doesn’t quite match the title track of the previous album, any difference in quality is vanishingly small.

For a band as dependent on feel and ambience as Alcest are, one of the most critical attributes is the skill to keep the listener firmly ensconced in the other-worldy miasma of their music, and thankfully there is not a single note that isn’t calibrated to do exactly this throughout the full running time of Les Voyages De L’Âme. Other bands can perhaps direct an ironic wink at the dirty business of rock ‘n’ roll, the listener and band fully aware that they are working together to suspend disbelief while at the same time acknowledging and embracing the inherent ridiculousness of this particular artistic form. From Kiss through to Immortal, via Motörhead and The Ramones, this approach is a time-honoured strand of musical tradition that will continue to gain adherents for ever more. For a band such as Alcest, however, it is imperative that they avoid breaking the spell that holds the listener in their thrall, and therefore the only viable way forward is to play it ramrod straight and deadly serious. If the price of this may be a slight lack of variation, the pay-off is pure escapism for as long as the album lasts. More so than than on Écailles De Lune though, there is variation there if one searches for it, and these elements are some of the most satisfying to be found on the album. The quasi-black metal blasting of ‘Là Où Naissent Les Couleurs Nouvelles’ again emphases the band’s connection to their more extreme roots, although Alcest offer a blissful blanket of snow, as opposed to the blizzards conjured by the more frostbitten purveyors of the more orthodox iteration of the genre. Equally as intriguing is the way in which the band switch in the latter part of the track between minor and major keys, generating an ecstatic conclusion to the track that emerges cautiously from a delightfully delicate bridge section, as if observing a spider building its web in the slowly rising sun, rays glinting off drops of the water vapour that condenses on each spindly strand of silk, before towering guitars bring the track to a majestic climax.

Even more fascinating is the magnificent and aptly named ‘Beings Of Light’. Liberated completely from any lingering connection to such fripperies as verses and choruses, Neige instead creates a bewitching track from little more than two, admittedly blissful, chords. The exact midpoint between the aggression and velocity of black metal, and the lush ambience of shoegaze, the track somehow synergises the power of both, becoming something startling and novel. In Roman folklore, Lucifer was the morning star, the bringer of light. The Christian idea of Lucifer characterises him as an angel, cast out from heaven. ‘Beings Of Light’ seems to embody a combination of the both Luciferian concepts, an angelic choir of voices acting as a beautifully carved Trojan horse for Neige’s seductive and extravagant melodicism. Not for the first time, it seems that Alcest are channelling the sound of the ether, tapping into something that always exists, waiting simply for a vessel to make itself heard. On this track, Alcest are that vessel.

To complete a beguiling journey, at the third time of asking, Alcest finally rectify the most obvious and glaring flaw of their previous efforts, this flaw being a strange aversion to concluding an album with a definitive and climactic statement. This is especially egregious for a band whose music centres around the post-metal convention of slowly building to a crescendo, funnelling the slow-moving waters of gratification into their musical dam, until the barrier’s structural integrity is finally overwhelmed by the onrushing flood of noise and emotion. Perhaps a lingering contrarianism has contributed to the consecutive anti-climaxes that have afflicted their career thus far, but on Les Voyages De L’Âme, Alcest finally allow themselves to be lead wilfully into temptation, and the only logical response is to assume a supplicatory position in recognition of the gifts that they magnanimously bestow upon the grateful listener. ‘Summer’s Glory’ is certainly the best track on this album, and may still be the best track that the band have released across their six releases, a gold-plated example of everything that Alcest do well, with every aspect of their sound optimised for maximal impact. Lulling us into a false sense of security initially, with what appears to be a prosaic indie-leaning chord progression, Neige’s ululating moan floating above the fray, the song becomes insidiously darker and heavier as it continues, until finally a spark of genius blazes into life for the final few minutes of the album. A crystalline lead guitar melody teases and tantalises, working through a number of slightly varied iterations, each repeat threatening to unleash the final version, celestial rays peaking through gradually parting clouds until finally the sky clears and we are bathed in the heavenly light of the enchanting, goosebump-inducing climax; Neige’s shoegaze guitar heroism a hipster inversion of Slash manhandling his Les Paul on the mountaintop at the end of ‘November Rain’. As the final notes drift away, and we find ourselves return once more to reality, the memory of the staggeringly infectious melody from ‘Summer’s Glory’ continues to reverberate into our world from wherever it originated.

Les Voyages De L’Âme is the most cohesive and fully-formed album that Alcest have put their name to at this point in their career. A transaction has been completed in which the band have exchanged a small amount of the ineffable magic that made their previous album so unique for a sheen of professionalism and songwriting sophistication, which continues to sustain their continually evolving career to this day. A tiny amount of realism, maturity even, has crept into Neige’s hitherto innocent universe. Together with a more dramatic sense of light and shade, and the ability to utilise a bigger toolbox to shape a less predictable landscape, Alcest have a greater sense of purpose than ever before, and the confidence to turn a majestic vision into reality. The band’s third album may not quite impart the pure wonder of its predecessor, and in that sense it is not quite as wondrous, but it is in all respects the album that Alcest needed to make and continues to impress nearly a decade after it cast its first spell.

Score: 85%

Alcest – Écailles De Lune

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Écailles De Lune
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Écailles De Lune
  • Year of Release: 2010
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO 106

Alcest burst onto the 21st century metal scene with the ground-breaking, but inconsistent Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde. Although it was far from perfect, there was more than enough promise inherent in a sound which grafted shoegaze and post-rock sounds on to a nominally black metal framework (even if it was at times difficult or even impossible to detect) to suggest that Alcest were a band with enormous potential. Écailles De Lune marks their transition from a band with huge potential into one of the modern heavy music scene’s most beloved and interesting bands, accentuating and enhancing all of the best elements of its predecessor, as well as improving their overall sound with a beefed up production, a keener sense of dynamics, and quite simply, better songs. One can make a convincing argument in favour of a couple of the albums that the band have released since Écailles De Lune being even better and more sophisticated pieces of work, but on the other hand, for many listeners this album retains a certain impossible to replicate magic that will forever place it at the pinnacle of the Alcest discography.

The enormous impact of this album is, to a large degree, due to the incredible one-two punch of the epic opening title track. Split into two parts, and taking up nearly half of the overall run-time of the album, it is utterly entrancing, and immediately creates a totally immersive and other-worldy experience. Like its predecessor, Écailles De Lune is comprised of a relatively slight six tracks, one of which is a short instrumental, but the similarities are only superficial. Although a similar approach on their debut meant that Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde felt rather lightweight, even if its running time still exceeded Reign In Blood, and a clutch of other classic albums; this time, possibly because of a set of tracks that largely maintain a high level of quality throughout, Alcest deliver something that feels considerably more substantial, and more worthy of the full-length tag that the band have bestowed it with. Everything about Écailles De Lune suggests a band now brimming with confidence, safe in the knowledge that they have the tools to fully recreate Neige’s vision, and the total conviction that pervades every single beat of the album allows the listener to cast aside any lingering misgivings and submerge themselves fully in the warm and comforting oasis of tranquillity that is the true sound of Alcest.

If the first iteration of Alcest sometimes represented a slightly uneasy union between the constituent parts of the band’s sound, this uneasiness has now totally dissipated, leaving only the fully-formed sound of blackgaze. On the evidence of the spectacular title tracks, no longer are disparate threads being visibly wound together, and instead the band produce a single strand of something altogether distinct. Finally, it seems that all parts of the band are pulling in the same direction – a floating guitar line that decorates the first section of ‘Part 1’, which could be from the first Interpol album, is virtually the only vestigial remnant of the jangly indie that their debut sometimes lapsed into, and instead, crunchier guitars work through heart-breakingly beautiful chord sequences, insistent melodies wrapping around Neige’s distinctive half-strummed, half-arpeggiated rhythm guitars, thick with plaintive longing, all the while clearly building to what will inevitably be a dynamic climax. As a delicately-picked melody finally breaks, like waves on a desolate shore, into an unforgettable tremolo riff, it is as if Alcest instantly come of age, growing into adulthood before our eyes. The tonality and harmony is strongly reminiscent of the kind of pastoral black metal pedalled by Winterfylleth, particularly when the harsher black metal vocals join the crashing guitars and drums, and the infectious melodies bring the timeless folk sensibilities of Kveldssanger-era Ulver into the enchanted woods in which Alcest’s music surely dwells. As the track gradually ebbs away, the tide once again leaves the shores bare, the ocean taking with it any doubts that may still have existed with respect to the band’s aspiration to combine the extreme sounds of their formative years with the languorous beauty of shoegaze. The second half of the title track progresses more rapidly from its woozy, dreamlike opening to strident, ultra-melodic black metal, Neige’s best Varg Vikernes impression uncharacteristically prominent in a clear mix. Chiming leads, cleverly treated with delay and utilising Eastern modes in a way that the band will explore further on Kodama later in their career, opens another inviting dimension to the Alcest sound, and the end result is an opening salvo that touches greatness, and stands tall with a stature possibly still unmatched by anything else in the band’s excellent discography.

It is no surprise that the rest of the album cannot quite match the heights of its first third, and there is no shame in this. Thankfully though, the remaining tracks avoid the dramatic drop in quality that afflicted Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde, to ensure that the listener remains captivated throughout the record’s entire duration. As if sensing that it is futile to attempt to improve upon the title track(s) with more of the same, ‘Percées De Lumière’ instead channels the kind of goth / post-punk of early Sisters Of Mercy, before overlaying swirling atmospherics, together with deft guitars redolent of the peerless inventiveness of Johnny Marr’s guitar work in The Smiths, with Morrissey’s atonal honk thankfully replaced by Neige’s high-pitched screech. What could be an incongruous juxtaposition of sounds just about hangs together cohesively, the songs ambiguity perfectly symbolising Neige’s shadowy presence. If there is a criticism of the track, it is that it lacks the shape-shifting progression of Alcest at their best, at least until a sky-scraping final section which is nothing short of pure euphoria, almost religious in its sheer fervour, enough to convert the staunchest atheist were it adopted by a forward-thinking religious order. The addictive melodies build a path heavenwards, and it is almost impossible at this point not to follow the band wherever they may roam from here.

Leaving aside the inconsequential, but not actively irritating ambient track that effectively splits the album into two halves, the only element of this album that fails to attain the outstanding quality of its companions is final track ‘Sur L’Océan Couleur De Fer’. For a band whose music frequently builds, post-rock style, to heart-stopping climaxes of carefully hewn noise, Alcest’s inability, at least to this point in their career, to conclude an album on the kind of high that they effortlessly generate elsewhere is a curiosity. Perhaps it reflects a desire on the part of Neige to sidestep the obvious, and if that is indeed the case, one can admire the bloody-mindedness of his stance, if not the result of what in reality is an overly stubborn decision. However, despite the unfettered, latter-day Anathema prettiness of the painstakingly constructed conclusion to Écailles De Lune, which, like a songbird’s nest, gives the impression that the slightest breeze would bring the whole thing crashing down to Earth, it is nevertheless a downbeat and disappointing destination to an enthralling journey that promised, but never quite reached paradise. Things would have been improved immeasurably, if only Alcest had chosen the path of least resistance, and reversed the sequence of the final two tracks, such peaks does ‘Solar Song’ scale. As this track gradually looms into view, we find ourselves floating on a placid lake, gloriously free and untethered. Gorgeous, harmonised vocals take the lead here, counterpoint melodies building an orchestra of human voices, creating moments of unalloyed beauty. Gradually, soothing guitar melodies build, creating a luxurious song that demands to be wallowed in; less a collection of phrases joined together, and instead one single, long-form melody. It is exquisitely composed, arranged and performed.

It is a wonderful thing to behold a band developing, in real time, into the band that they had threatened to become, and on Alcest’s second album, that is exactly what we are fortunate enough to bear witness to. Écailles De Lune is a short album, but packed full of invention, beauty and magic. Alcest have continued to release fascinating music since its release, but even if one prefers their later work, it is difficult to argue against Écailles De Lune as the perfect representation of the sound that remains at the core of the band’s approach, the roots that feed their younger leaves and branches feeling their way into unclaimed spaces, but dependent on the life-giving power of their link to the ground beneath. The emotional connection with the listener is that much greater than previously, as if the lessons of the trial and error of their debut have been rigorously studied and applied to its follow-up, and a perfectly conceived vision is almost flawlessly executed, in a way that is both thrilling and satisfying. Just as Neige seeks to find a way to transport himself back to the Fairy Land that he claims to have experienced during his childhood, so the innocent wonders of this album ensure that the music within will never grow old, and this listener will not grow weary any time soon.

Score: 88%

Alcest – Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde
  • Year of Release: 2007
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO090

The sound of Alcest’s debut album, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde, is familiar and even run of the mill these days, but this development is testament to the extensive and ongoing influence that the band (or perhaps more accurately Neige, the mastermind behind Alcest and their near neighbour, the short-lived Amesoeurs) have had on the contemporary metal scene. A fusion of black metal and the kind of shoegaze originally popularised by indie-leaning outfits such as Ride, Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine now seems like a completely logical step in the development of extreme music, in the light of the mainstream success of kindred spirits Deafheaven’s Sunbather, as well as the more general incorporation of aspects of the shoegaze sound into the post-metal of Deftones, Mono and many more. This was certainly not the case, however, in the earlier part of this century. Black metal had by that stage of course already welcomed numerous outside influences into its counter-intuitively elastic parameters, despite the protestations of the corpse-painted minority who curse any kind of deviation from 1990s orthodoxy, but even some of the most open-minded genre-hoppers might have baulked at this particular union. Until, that is, they heard the glorious results.

In truth, although elements of their debut are indeed glorious, we should also caution that it is clearly the work of a band finding their feet, and figuring out how to integrate the disparate and even inimical parts of their music into a cohesive whole. Alcest would find a more complete expression of their sound, and attain full glory, across their next two albums, on which they achieve an equilibrium that they do not quite manage on this patchy, but never less than intriguing effort. One should also be wary of overplaying the black metal component of their sound in the rush to acclaim the courage of their genre-breaking intentions. This is not to say that its presence is completely illusory, but that it is subtle enough for one to recognise that much of Alcest’s genuine credibility in extreme metal circles is derived from Neige’s association with, and involvement in, a raft of more overtly metallic bands, rather than because their own music resonates with aggressive black metal fury. It must be noted that these associations include historical membership of the very controversial (and quite possibly very racist) Peste Noire, although there is no suggestion or indication that Neige / Alcest share the political leanings of that particular band, and it would be unreasonable to allow what genuinely appears to be the poor decision-making of a naive teenager to taint the output of a band that do not have any connection to political extremism, lyrically, aesthetically or otherwise.

A far greater influence on the band’s sound is the constant drive on the part of Neige to recapture his childhood experiences of what he claims (apparently with total sincerity) to have been a voyage to an alternative world, populated by fairies, or magical beings of some sort. It’s easy to pour scorn on such supernatural encounters and the likelihood is that Neige has either invented them to generate intrigue and mystique, or (probably more likely, given his unstinting adherence to his narrative) previously entered some kind of hyper-real dreamstate, remembered so vividly and so impactfully that it is been retrospectively rationalised as a paranormal experience. Irrespective of the veracity of Neige’s claims, however, the stories provide a conceptual focus for Alcest, which enables their compositions to be centred around the sonic reconstruction of the far-flung lands visited, and offer a framework for a beguiling and evocative sound in which the band effectively provide the dots, and invite the keen listener to join them together, collectively building a world that hitherto existed only internally within Neige. The thematic thrust of Alcest, perhaps unconsciously, generates a set of rules for what can and cannot work under the banner of their name – shimmering, celestial soundscapes and androgynous, delicate vocals are very much the band’s primary mode of communication. Thunderous brutality, however, is entirely absent, even if Alcest occasionally adopt characteristics of the more extreme sound from which they emerged prior to their first full-length release. The album cover itself is a perfectly realised representation of the music contained within, and demonstrates Neige’s keen eye for imagery that matches the band’s overall aesthetic. The child that is the subject of the photo on the sleeve, looking in some respects like a refugee from Neverland, evoking feelings simultaneously feral and innocent, absent-mindedly plays with a reed or stalk, as if it were an instrument, suggesting a young Neige playing the music of the fairies that he consorted with in the Otherworld.

The album begins, as life on Earth itself does, in spring, with ‘Printemps Émeraude’. Where conventional black metal is the frostbitten sound of the end of all life, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde is instead the sound of renewal, of fertile and fecund growth, and of bucolic and rapturous reverie. And it has to be said, that belying the band’s background in the metal scene, there is very little about the opening track that qualifies as metal at all. The angular chord progression that commences the album, replete with chiming octaves and twinkling lead guitar melodies is more reminiscent of early 2000s indie, more Bloc Party than Blasphemy, more Interpol than Immortal. As the track progresses though, Alcest deftly begin to join the hitherto vast chasm lying between The Smiths and Sarcofago, with the drums maintaining an understated, but undeniable double-bass rumble, and although harmonically the note selection is very much at the pretty end of the beauty spectrum, it also approximates a black metal tremolo, albeit transplanted out of the grim and forbidding north, and into the verdant Mediterranean south. Brief snatches of metallic velocity, the washed out and trebly distortion of the guitars like a distant memory of Scandinavian black metal, reinforce these links, paired with Neige’s instantly recognisable winsome and angelic vocals, before the track breaks down into the kind of languid, watery loveliness that Smashing Pumpkins always dropped into so naturally in their imperial phase. In fact, Alcest at their best have a substantial amount in common with Billy Corgan’s troupe, fond of deploying heavy guitars, and operating in a space adjacent to metal, but just as often exploring calmer, more languorous sonics. There is enough going on in the track to avoid monotony – a couple of modulations in key see to it that the mood and tempo shift often enough to keep the listener’s attention, and as a clear statement of intent, it’s highly successful.

The rest of the first half of the album continues to build on the spiritually metal, but sonically shoegaze manoeuvres of the first track, each offering slight variations on a theme. The better of the two is ‘Les Iris’, which is a perfectly judged epic, adopting slightly more obviously metal chord voicings, a little more treble in the guitar tone, and something approaching a black metal blast. True to the overall vision of the band though, the blasting is less an aggressive display of dominant might, and more a warm cocoon of mesmerising sound, opening a portal to Neige’s ‘fairy land’, and sheltering the listener in a pastoral paradise of ethereal beauty. Coupled with the redemptive second half of the track, which utterly wrenches the blackest of hearts with its subtle and sophisticated melodicism, ‘Les Iris’ is utterly beguiling and fleshes out the blueprint for a sound that would become fully-formed on this album’s successor Écailles De Lune to spectacular effect. The title-track, which precedes it, is not quite as good, but it does feature the first stirrings of what remains one of the hallmarks of the Alcest sound – clean, twinkling guitars layering meandering melodies like a dusting of snow on a windswept chord progression, with Neige’s slightly distant, androgynous ululations transcending their occasional atonality to galvanise the song as a whole into what is now instantly recognisable as blackgaze, but at the time sounded extremely fresh and novel.

Were the second half of the album as good as the first, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde might be considered a minor classic, as opposed to the enjoyable beginnings of a band who would go on to bigger and better things, but the final triptych of tracks ranges from mediocre to downright tedious. ‘Ciel Errant’ in particular is an abomination, although in some respects it is actually rather revealing in terms of demonstrating just how skilled Alcest are to mostly succeed in weaving gold from raw materials that can so easily result in something bland and inoffensive. When Alcest get it right, their melodies provide shards of bittersweet beauty amid torrents of violence; too often here they are facile, cringeworthy, and more pedestrian than London’s busiest shopping street on Christmas Eve. The naysayers might argue that Alcest take black metal as a starting point, only to denude it of all danger, presenting instead a sterile imitation; the desiccated husk of what is left once all vitality has been extracted. It’s an accusation that is mostly unwarranted, but when the spell is broken as it is here, the listener can be forgiven for wondering if Alcest are any good at all. If this glimpse of Alcest without the sparkle of fairy dust that ordinarily elevates their music is unedifying, the final track ‘Tir Nan Og’ recovers some of the lost ground. Employing Celtic mythology to cement the links between Neige’s own experiences and more widely known legends of pre-Christian myth-making, the title apparently translates as ‘Land Of The Young’, describing an island paradise of everlasting youth and joy. Not obvious lyrical subject matter for metal-adjacent music perhaps, but from another perspective, one could argue that it is simply a less cynical and more innocent take on the classic metal obsession with fantasy-based subject matter, and therefore directly connected to metal genealogy in a way that is not immediately apparent from the music itself, which is almost entirely upbeat and holds none of even the lurking undercurrent of menace that stalks their best work. Despite this, and even though it is clearly overlong, it succeeds due to it’s immensely pretty melody, and ability to conjure the magical atmosphere missing from the middle section of the album, concluding a curious album in fitting style.

In the final analysis, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde is notable mostly for what it initiated, rather than what it actually is. By extruding and moulding something that is at least vaguely connected to black metal into shoegaze and post-rock shapes, Alcest provided the catalyst for a generation of bands to combine ethereal soundscapes and pastoral warmth, with some of the sonic characteristics of extreme metal. Furthermore, during the best moments of the album, almost all of which are found in the first three tracks, the combination sounds entirely natural, and even obvious. The effect on the extreme metal scene since the release of this album has been not unlike that caused by Isis in the wake of their monumental Oceanic album, which similarly fused post-rock with the apocalyptic sludge, the quieter parts every bit as compelling as the more visceral heavy sections, inspiring countless bands to introduce a greater sense of dynamics to their own febrile riffing. Blackgaze is now very much a sub-genre in its own right, and even bands that don’t fit neatly into this particular descriptive bracket such as Panopticon, or even Wayfarer, betray similar influences, bringing sounds from outside the genre into black metal in a way that would be more startling had Alcest not travelled the path that they have since their early releases. Purely on the basis of the music itself though, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde feels overall rather slight and a little ephemeral, passing through without leaving more than a faint trail for others to follow. There are certainly enough glimpses of the magic that would be more substantially realised on the following two albums to ensure that it is not unenjoyable, and it could be edited to an excellent EP, but evaluating the album as the full-length that the band consider it to be, Alcest are found wanting, even if the listener is found to be wanting more.

Score: 65%

Akhlys – Melinoë

Author: BD Joyce

Akhlys – Melinoë
  • Artist: Akhlys
  • Album: Melinoë
  • Year of Release: 2020
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Debemur Morti
  • Format: Digipak CD
  • Catalogue Number: DMP0194

Akhlys initially started as the a dark ambient project of Naas Alcameth of Aoratos, Nightbringer, and a number of other underground bands, but over the course of their short career, the black metal of his other bands has seeped, as if via some kind of sonic osmosis, into Akhlys. The result of this convergence of the various sides of Alcameth’s musical personalities is the nightmarish, but addictive, soundscapes of the band’s third record Melinoë. Paradoxically epic, and at the same time oddly concise, Melinoë is comprised of just four fairly lengthy tracks and a short instrumental interlude, but very much feels like a full length album, rather than the EP it could almost be classified as, due to the extreme emotional intensity that the album wrings from the band’s fascinating blend of sounds, which leaves the attentive listener feeling exhausted at the conclusion of closing track ‘Incubatio’. It’s an impressive achievement to create an album so immersive and involving, but which is brief enough to facilitate the repeat listens required to truly understand and appreciate the considerable breadth and scope of the Akhlys experience, given the general absence of metal’s more basic and easy pleasures (memorable riffs and choruses, for example) which would ordinarily generate the immediate attachment needed to stimulate the curiosity that drives the listener to return again and again to what is, after all, a punishing experience.

Everything about Melinoë seems deliberately calibrated to achieve maximum sonic devastation. The album is bifurcated by the aforementioned eerie ambient interlude, which provides a necessary pause for breath and momentary respite amidst the still smoking wreckage wrought by the relentless pummelling of the first two tracks, before Akhlys somehow ratchet up the intensity to even more eye-bleeding levels across the second half of this magnificent album. The blasting drums which open ‘Somniloquy’ sound a portentous fusillade, soon to be joined by a churning maelstrom of guitars, ostensibly constructing patterns that are recognisably black metal, but without clearly resembling the orthodox shapes of the kind of second wave riffing that to this day tends to be the most obvious signifier of the black metal sound. Instead, Akhlys play the kind of apocalyptic, psychedelic black metal that prioritises feeling and atmosphere over an adherence to traditional metal tropes, the kind of black metal whose most obvious adherents are bands such as Blut Aus Nord, Schammasch and Ruins Of Beverast, all bands who are responsible for making some of the most exciting extreme music of the 21st century. Clearly, Akhlys aspire to join the ranks of the modern day black metal greats, and on the evidence of their third record, their time is likely to come sooner rather than later. What really separates Akhlys from the chasing pack is their fascinating use of synth. Of course, keyboards and midi orchestrations are hardly a new feature of black metal – from the moment that Ihsahn plastered the majority of In The Nightside Eclipse with electronic augmentation and inspired a pantheon of symphonic black metal bands, not least the commercial behemoths of Dimmu Borgir and Cradle Of Filth, the instrument was here to stay, and for many bands has been a simple tool to add depth and harmonic complexity to what can be a monochrome form of metal (albeit sometimes intentionally and enjoyably so). Akhlys, however, use synth in a way that feels novel, and totally individual. As opposed to employing the kind of neo-classical flourishes favoured by many bands, or using synths to fill out the chords underpinning tremolo riffing in the guitars, Akhlys employ the kind of electro tones that one would more typically find in trance or techno, and which utterly dominate the tonal range of their music, essentially becoming the lead instrument. At times, the combination of the whirring percussion, understated guitars and day-glo keyboards is almost nauseatingly difficult to listen to, staying just the right side of grating noise, but its tractor beam effect unerringly draws the listener in, almost against one’s better judgement. The overall effect is unsettling, bringing a twisted carnivalesque dimension to their iteration of black metal, not unlike the sideshow symphonies of Arcturus, but considerably less arch and knowingly pretentious. It also has the function of furnishing the songs with oddly catchy melodies, amid a sound that would otherwise offer little in the way of hooks, setting simple slow motion motifs against the unstinting velocity of the rest of the instrumentation, all coming together into a sound that is complex, without being overly technical.

Akhlys’s gradually shape-shifting sound suggests something enormous gradually coming into view, a looming object of such scale that humanity itself, and everything it has yet achieved, feels transient and infinitesimal in comparison. The way in which the brilliant ‘Pnigalion’ gradually opens out into a perma-blasting epic feels like a continuous camera shot initially showing a what appears to be a substantial spacecraft against the backdrop of a rock face, only to slowly and incrementally pull back to reveal that the craft is shadowed by an almost inconceivably large celestial body, becoming tiny, and eventually disappearing, reminding us of the brevity of humanity’s entire existence when seen from a universal perspective. The drums are once against set to perma-blast, operating almost as a drone of background radiation or static, and the amorphous, sinister synth lines once again dominate the mix and drive the song forward until the tempo shifts downwards for a final few moments of stilness, calm, and even redemption before the inevitable assault begins once more. Brief snatches of ambient sound, the aimless communications of a lost civilisation perhaps, offer a small amount of breathing room, delaying the inexorable advance towards the inescapable black hole that Akhlys are piloting the listener towards.

Things come to a monumental conclusion with final track ‘Incubatio’, which is final proof, if indeed proof were needed, that Akhlys possess the ability to vary their mode of attack just enough to find new ways to intrigue, and to ensure that the initial thrill of their singular sound does not dissipate by the end of the record. After ‘Ephialtes’ does much the same thing as the first half of the album to similar effect, there is a danger that Akhlys would prove themselves a one-trick pony. A trick worthy of a master magician, admittedly, but a single trick all the same. ‘Incubatio’, however utilises the same basic formula as the rest of Melinoë, but imbues the output with a greater degree of grandiosity, forging an even stronger emotional connection than the other tracks manage to build. ‘Incubatio’ represents the inevitable final stages of the omni-directional interstellar traverse that the album as a whole has embodied, and consolidates all of the key elements of their sound, before, crucially, adding ever more layers of sound, progressively building a black metal masterpiece of stunning proportions. The track transports the scale of ambition of Burzum’s landmark Hvis Lyset Tar Oss into modern avant-garde black metal, bringing together the feel and spirit of the second wave with the broader range of influences and compositional techniques available to a metal band in the 2020s. It’s a sensational updating of the classic, hypnotic black metal template laid down in the mid-90s, and achieves the same kind of transcendental alchemy that so many of the classic records of that era resonate with. Synth lines meander and gradually coalesce until it appears that the full spectrum of audible frequencies is saturated with sound, until finally and cataclysmically, the universe Akhlys have created implodes, collapsing under the unbearable weight until suddenly nothing is left, only the vacuum of space remains.

Truthfully, this is not quite of the same quality as the canonical releases of the golden period cited above, although this is hardly a significant criticism, given the vanishingly small number of black metal releases that exist in the same tier of elite superiority. Akhlys do, however, absolutely succeed in delivering a highly cinematic and evocative release, which immediately positions the band at the forefront of the contemporary extreme music scene. Melinoë marks the arrival of a highly distinctive and utterly convincing take on black metal, composed and performed with appropriate gravitas and bug-eyed intensity. If black metal is a spiders web, gradually radiating outwards from the seminal first and second wave bands, contemporary iterations often seemingly disparate, but simultaneously connected to everything that came before by a strong, but imperceptible thread, Akhlys find themselves on the outer segment of this silken web, alongside a number of the most intriguing bands in metal. It will be fascinating to discover what patterns they are able to weave as they continue to develop, because as superb as Melinoë is, and as fully-formed a statement as it represents, one imagines that having set controls straight for the heart of the black hole this time round, if they are able to allow a small amount of light to permeate the darkness on their next album, almost anything is possible.

Score: 87%