Author: BD Joyce
- 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to title their albums, so evocative of Neige’s childhood journeys into the fantasy world that inspired his music, have been replaced by a single English word; much more direct, and frankly, marketable. The dreamy hand-drawn artwork of Alcest’s sleeves has also been replaced by a less striking and genre-specific photograph, and the elaborate band logo, for so long an aesthetic connection to the metal scene from which the band emerged,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.