Author: BD Joyce
- 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.