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%

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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%

Abigor – Fractal Possession

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigor – Fractal Possession
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Fractal Possession
  • Year of Release: 2007
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: End All Life
  • Format: Digibook CD
  • Catalogue Number: EAL 052

Abigor mainstay P.K. returns after a six year absence (since 2001’s somewhat lukewarmly-received Satanized), re-recruiting drummer T.T. and new vocalist A.R. for 2007’s Fractal Possession. Abigor are quite rightly held in the highest regard within the pantheon of black metal artists, in large part because of their incredible mid- to late-90s output. This took the core backbone of early 90s Norwegian black metal, with a faintly “medieval” twist, but never felt like a direct lift of greater bands, owing to their prodigious talent and almost ADHD approach to song-writing that I have described previously as “chaos black”. Understandably there were huge expectations when a new album was announced, with many fans yearning for a return to the early Satyricon- and Emperor-influenced sounds of yesteryear, rather than Satanized’s more futuristic take on the genre. However, pandering to the kvltist fanbase has never been what Abigor are about.

The first thing to say about Fractal Possession is that it is really, really good. The second thing to say is that, despite the obvious quality on display, it is hard not to feel that Abigor are a little bit late to a party that peaked some years previously. Fractal Possession fits firmly within the Moonfoggery of mid-period Satyricon, Dødheimsgard, Thorns et al. and even to an extent Mayhem’s Grand Declaration Of War (although it is not as daring as the latter). The album kicks off with a vaguely industrial opener (‘Warning’), all robotic voices and radio sounds, which sets the scene for much of the rest of the album – in fact the subtle use of electronics, samples and keys is a real strength of the album. Abigor have never been shy of a good sample or keyword line, but this time they are used differently, creating a colder, more mechanical sound in keeping with the band’s new lyrical stance – still blasphemous and in praise of Satan but now with a technological spin (stand-out track ‘3D Blasphemy’ references the “biomechanical Antichrist”). Again, there is clear influence from the likes of Mysticum and Aborym here, although Abigor embrace industrial to nowhere near the same extent as either, using those influences as flavour more than an outright genre-shift – this is still very clearly black metal, despite its experimentation.

New vocalist A.R. puts in a solid performance – his slightly lower-pitched black metal rasp (in comparison to Silenius’ for instance) suits the music perfectly, and it’s actually nice on this occasion to be able to make out the lyrics; his experiments with clean vocals and the Maniac-style declaratory stuff is more of a mixed bag. When it works, it briefly reminds of Garm or Aldrahn, but when it doesn’t, it sounds out of place (the close of ‘Vapourized Tears’ is suspiciously like latter-day Katatonia – a band I love, but this just doesn’t fit with the rest of this album). The layered guitar sound retains some of the sense of melody from older Abigor, and is unquestionably tightly arranged and performed, and I personally like the slightly stop-start nature of some of the riffing. Also in common with older Abigor are the sheer number of riffs being utilised across the whole album, even if it sounds superficially more straightforward, owing to the impressive production that renders everything audible, which was still a bit of a rarity in black metal in 2007. The drumming of T.T. is predictably incredibly varied and impressive, and he has admirably turned his hand to the mechanical sound of the New Abigor.

This isn’t perfect and could easily be dismissed as an example of bandwagon-jumping by a previous innovator within the scene. I’m more charitable and think this is an excellent example of third-wave black metal embracing new influences and creating something of musical worth. Even if Abigor at this stage were not doing anything wildly ground-breaking, that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is an exceptionally solid set of songs that hang together as a coherent album and represent an impressive return from the proverbial grave for a band many had written off towards the end of the 00s. Recommended.

Score: 78%