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%

Akercocke – Renaissance In Extremis

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Renaissance In Extremis
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Renaissance In Extremis
  • Year of Release: 2017
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Peaceville
  • Format: Digipak CD
  • Catalogue Number: CDVILEF636

Despite their neverending and understandable popularity, a reunion is a tricky proposition for many bands. Metal’s capacity for nostalgia, and sometimes backwards-looking tendency means that the clamour for well-regarded bands to reunite rarely dissipates, and even increases over time. Max Cavalera and Andreas Kisser will never stop being asked about the prospect of bringing the ‘classic’ Sepultura line-up back together, even if the mostly mediocre output of both men since the mid-90s suggests that it would be unlikely that they would produce anything even approaching the godlike brilliance of Beneath The Remains or Arise. Similarly, a Pantera reboot would in all likelihood be hugely popular, despite the fact that 50% of the band, and probably the most integral 50%, are sadly no longer drawing breath. While a sub-section of their fanbase might be caught up in debating the validity of any claim to the name on the part of Philip Anselmo and whatever posse of hired hands he deigned to employ, the band themselves would be surveying such conversation from the upper reaches of festival line-ups across the globe. Translating a live reunion into new music is even more difficult, with perhaps only Celtic Frost, Cirith Ungol and Autopsy springing readily to mind as unqualified successes in recent years. The potential pitfalls of recording new music after a significant hiatus are legion, and even allowing for the initial excitement generated by the return of a classic band, many acts fall into a spiral of diminishing returns, even if the music itself stands up to scrutiny, as seems to be the case for the likes of At The Gates and Death Angel, to name just two of many bands that have reformed this century. Too slavishly following a template set down years or decades before runs the risk of a band becoming their own glorified tribute act, while failing to recapture the magic that was originally created by a certain set of circumstances that can no longer exist. Conversely, wholesale sonic revolution may be successful, and position a band as more relevant in relation to current trends, but it is more liable to alienate the very people that have been pinning their hopes on the reformation in the first place, as well as, in the eyes of some, tainting a legacy, or at the very least painting it in a different light. There is a reason why Emperor have been playing live for a decade since their original disbandment without venturing into the studio and, while this is an option for the truly legendary, when it comes to bands in Akercocke’s position in the metal hierarchy, there is little chance of living off the proceeds of festival appearances alone. It is against this backdrop that, following their own reconciliation, they reconstituted themselves as both a live act and as one that once again would release new, original music, delivering Renaissance In Extremis as their olive branch to fans disappointed by their dissolution five years earlier.

Akercocke’s previous album Antichrist, which felt at the time like something of a full stop to their career, bearing in mind the tight and focussed nature of a set of songs that consolidated all elements of the band’s sound, while at the same time toning down some of the more expressive experimentalism, was released in 2007. The band fell into inactivity following the touring cycle, and ultimately went their separate ways in 2012, a break-up which eventually spawned the excellent Voices, whose sound bears much in common with Akercocke, even if thematically and aesthetically there are some clear differences. If Antichrist was a full stop, then Renaissance In Extremis is the start of a new chapter, and the possibly overly literal title is a fairly clear statement of intent, albeit one that the album doesn’t quite live up to. While it certainly is a renaissance of sorts, it’s not exactly the exercise in extremity that the band might want you to think it is. Particularly in comparison to their first two albums, which were genuinely extreme in almost every respect, elements of the record feel almost restrained, and certainly less over-powering than the blasting behemoth that made the dizzyingly intense Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene. Let us not exaggerate – Akercocke have not been transformed overnight into Coldplay, but there is something more mannered and calculating about their attack, even if it still contains many of the constituent parts of their historical sound. The wild decadence that once characterised their music, however, allowing them to give free rein to the feral and ferocious part of their personality is no longer present, perhaps now considered by the band as the folly of youth.

If Renaissance In Extremis can trace its DNA into the Akercocke genealogy, the album that it most clearly takes its cues from is their progressive death metal masterpiece, Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone. In some ways this is an enticing development – to this listener at least, that particular album was the perfect expansion of the Akercocke sound, retaining most of the fury and pulverising brutality of their earlier efforts, but also striking out unconstrained into intoxicating psychedelia, post-punk and dazzling technical prog-metal. It is also the most logical step that Akercocke could have taken at this point. Any attempt to in some way recapture and replicate the spirit and sound of the untrammelled ferocity of their debut would seem contrived, whilst pursuing something completely unconnected to their original wellspring of inspiration would call into question the reason for reviving the band in the first place. This connection to the band’s fourth album is obvious right from the spidery opening to the lead-off track ‘Disappear’, before it drops into the thrash-oriented gallop that forms the core sound of much of the record. A brief foray into the kind of seasick dissonant harmonies that they used to specialise in re-animates the corpse of millennial Akercocke, before the latter part of the track alternates between the kind of delicate post-metal that has now infiltrated most sub-genres of metal since Akercocke originally went their separate ways, and the kind of acrobatic guitar work that is more familiar territory for the band. At times, the dextrous twin leads elevate the track to majestic heights, and it is truly a thrill to hear Akercock back in action, but re-tooled in a way that ensures that they remain in at least touching distance of relevance, if indeed that is a concept of any real importance.

As we continue through Renaissance In Extremis, it is apparent that sonically, Akercocke have opted for a much cleaner, and less cluttered production that they ever have before. Although this makes a certain amount of sense, given the increasing reliance on the melodic guitar leads as the driving force of their sound, as opposed to the twisted death metal riffing of old, it does mean that, at times, proceeding veer into slightly sterile territory, and the compelling and other-worldly atmospheres that made the band such a unique proposition are almost totally absent. This is not to say, of course, that there are not still sections of the album that make it an essential addition to the die-hard fan’s collection. ‘Familiar Ghosts’ is mostly magnificent and arranged in such a way that it represents a totally transporting journey for the listener. It’s no coincidence that the track contains probably the most effective use of synths on the album; an insidiously catchy melody gradually building a complex harmonic relationship with guitars that deploy shards of unresolved, hanging chords, while David Gray find new uses for his drum ‘n’ bass inflected drum patterns, before white-hot blasts of chromatic dissonance bring modern Akercocke firmly back into the black metal realm that they used to previously inhabit so easily. In a wonderful juxtaposition of old and new, the closing part of the song then constructs a redemptive and euphoric conclusion from the wreckage wrought by the mid-section, perhaps musically mirroring Jason Mendonca’s own well-publicised mental health struggles during the band’s hiatus. Similarly impressive is the splendid ‘One Chapter Ends For Another To Begin’, which shows that the band haven’t lost their touch when it comes to assimilating newer developments in extreme metal, mining a seam of beatific and uplifting shoegaze against a backdrop of relentless blasting. The song also sports a plaintive vocal, working its way around an elegant melody, and it coalesces into their take on the kind of sound that Alcest have brought into the mainstream of late. It works beautifully, a left turn and novel compositional approach for the band, but not so out of step with the rest of the album as to sound irritatingly incongruous.

The track which is probably the best representation example of Akercocke circa 2017, however, is also emblematic of the drawbacks of the return of this superb band. ‘A Final Glance Back Before Departing’ again takes the band’s now core sound of fairly linear death/thrash as a starting point, and overlays fluent and extravagant lead guitars in a way that balances effortless technical mastery with pounding metallic riffage. Thematically and vocally however, the break with the past is difficult to reconcile with the beast that Akercocke once were. I’ve written previously about the fact that part of the beauty of Akercocke has always been the fact that not only is their music outstanding, but that they were also aesthetically complete, emerging fully-formed with a debonair image, an erudite and somewhat arcane lyrical bent derived from fascinating literary sources, using instantly recognisable artwork to tie everything together, ensuring that a common thread runs throughout their back catalogue, despite the evolutionary leaps made from album to album. On this comeback record, however, and never more starkly than on this track, the veil is unceremoniously lifted, and Mendonca’s lyrics are far more personal, but also more rudimentary and generic, deprived of the idiom of esoteric Satanism that the band were once so proficient in employing. Presumably, the band might argue that along with the ditching of the suited and booted image, it was necessary to remove the facade that they previously operated behind, and that the listener is now confronted by the ‘real Akercocke’. In so easily casting aside some of the elements that were so crucial to the Akercocke mythos though, the spell is broken, and instead the band become just another very good progressive metal band. Where Mendonca once used imperious vocals to sing of “the senseless vanity of the Nazarene”, his now tremulous voice sings accusingly “Don’t be fooled / Because I walk and talk”. It is undoubtedly courageous and admirable to become publicly so vulnerable, and in another context, such lyrical content could succeed with its naked honesty, but for Akercocke, it comes to close to calling into question some of the most precious aspects of the core essence of the band, and this makes the track, and to a lesser extent the album a difficult listen.

The album ends strongly, and this is to its credit, with the penultimate track, ‘Inner Sanctum’, the strongest and most convincing song on the entire album. A concise torrent of technically adroit death metal, this blizzard of clever ideas incorporates a jaw-dropping instrumental passage that is as startlingly brilliant as anything the band have ever put their name to, augmenting an already superior song as a Caravaggio adorns a breath-taking Roman church. As the closing notes of the mostly excellent ‘A Particularly Cold September’ fades away, the listener finds themselves trying to resolve the perpetual conflict of the reunion album. It is of course pleasing to welcome back one of extreme metal’s most interesting and forward-thinking bands, and gratifyingly, they have returned with an album which holds its own in a changed musical landscape. Akercocke easily evade the kind of embarrassment that has afflicted many a band, and there is much to admire about their comeback. Conversely, there is no avoiding the fact that it is fundamentally not the transcendent experience that we are given to expect from a band of such talent and skill. It seem a little cruel, given Jason Mendonca’s aforementioned mental health battles, to criticise Renaissance In Extremis too severely. Its very existence is, in many ways, a triumph over adversity, and of course in no way diminishes the quality of everything that has come before it. However, in most of the respects that truly count, it ultimately pales in comparison to their monumental past works. Renaissance In Extremis is masterfully composed, well arranged, and impeccably performed, but the lack of the band’s trademark feral intensity means that it fails to make the kind of emotional connection that once came so easily, and instead exists as something to be admired from a position of detachment, a framed portrait in a fusty gallery. The unassailable self-confidence of the previous iteration of Akercocke has evaporated, and in their place a more diffident group, eminently capable of musical virtuosity, but lacking the singular and magnetic force of personality that once made them stand out so far from the crowd. Akercocke are an excellent progressive metal band, and Renaissance In Extremis is a good progressive metal album. For now, that is probably enough, although it does mean that Akercocke are just another band, one of the pack, rather than the trailblazing leaders that they were. Once, Akercocke gleefully sang in praise of the damned. In evaluating their reunion, it is impossible not to damn them with with faint praise.

Score: 67%

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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%

Akercocke – Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone
  • Year of Release: 2005
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Earache
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: MOSH 322CD

In a short space of time, Akercocke had emerged from the London extreme metal underground to become one of the most heralded bands in metal, with an already formidable back catalogue to bear comparison with any of their peers. Over three fearsome, and virtually flawless albums, Akercocke had given an object study in how to successfully develop a core sound, their ever-growing tentacles reaching into increasingly more eldritch depths, while never completely severing the connection to the heart of the creature (or hearts, if we are going to stretch the cephalopod metaphor to its limit). Their fourth album, Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone was, on release, considered something of left turn, the band apparently jumping headfirst into the prog-rock ocean. On reflection, however, this reputation perhaps says more about the conservatism of the metal scene in 2005, than it does about Akercocke’s evolving sonic choices. While it is undoubtedly a courageous album for an ostensibly death metal act to release, it is at all times recognisably the same band that made Choronzon, and even the most progressive moments of this record sound like nothing less than a completely natural extension of everything Akercocke have done to this point. If the previous three records were the assembly of a spacecraft, Words That Go Unspoken… is that same vehicle leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, crewed by the engineers that built it.

The incendiary opening track ‘Verdelet’ initially offers few clues to the more expansive sound of the album, contrasting strongly with its immediate predecessor by eschewing a lengthy introduction, in favour of launching straight into coruscating death metal, which remains an integral part of the band’s armoury throughout. The familiar dissonant, ringing arpeggios, something of an Akercocke trademark, make an early appearance. More unfamiliar though, is the cleaner, crisper mix, and sense of spaciousness offered both by the stripped back instrumentation and more conventional riffing style. Prior to this point in their career, Akercocke have generally favoured a dense, suffocating production, which has resulted in their music seeming uniquely claustrophobic, every guitar figure building patterns on top of the previous one, gradually constricting the life from the trapped, but mesmerised listener. On Words That Go Unspoken… it is as if these walls have suddenly disintegrated, and in its place is a sense of the infinite. Where no life once dwelled, wide open space now appears, the terrain offering fertile soil for fecund growth and new life. The other key difference from what has come before is the move away from the black metal atmospherics that have characterised and distinguished the band’s sound since their debut. Although the album does not avoid the use of synths, their function is more often utilised as a lead instrument, rather than cloaking their intense tremolo blasts in the gothic grandiosity of old. Intriguingly, what we are left with is an Akercocke that are still recognisably Akercocke, but also much more direct in their metallic attack.

The brilliant ‘Verdelet’ is emblematic of these changes, featuring all of the hyperactive tempo-shifts that the band have become known for, forever twisting death metal into seductive new shapes, but also hosting one of the most straightforward and grooving thrash riffs that Akercocke have ever committed to tape – the mid-section of the track is as downright anthemic and accessible as the band have ever been, and as a result, ‘Verdelet’ is almost indecently infectious. The fun doesn’t end there, however, and it’s the second half of the track which really showcases the wide-ranging appeal of this iteration of Akercocke. Picking up the Eastern tones that were utilised more tentatively on the previous record, on Words That Go Unspoken…, the band fully commit to the rich and enveloping synth-based opulence that makes an appearance following the aforementioned thrashing grooves. For a band that have generally favoured multi-part songs playing host to numerous abrupt changes of mood and cadence, it is truly satisfying to hear the band exploring a more post-metal feel, in which small motifs and themes are gradually developed, and pulled and pushed into different directions. If Akercocke were once a highly adept Victor Frankenstein, bolting their monster together from disparate parts, here it feels that they are instead gestating a new being, nerves, arteries and limbs gradually extending outwards, marrying the triumphant metal classicism of the spiralling leads that lead the song into the more familiar wind-tunnel riffing of old, and then on into monochrome grimness, working through chromatic black metal patterns, before finally resting on a progressive death metal conclusion, which finds mid-period Deicide playing Disintegration-era The Cure as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Leading off with a track that acknowledges no boundaries is a masterstroke of sequencing, as it allows Akercocke to roam into virtually any musical space for the remainder of the album’s duration without it appearing particularly outré, and it all serves to make Words That Go Unspoken… an utterly intoxicating album. This is not to say that Akercocke have abandoned their roots entirely, and ‘Eyes Of The Dawn’ even offers nostalgic fans something of a throwback to the ferocity of The Goat Of Mendes, but it is also undeniable that the most entrancing musical passages to be found on the record are more often than not those that bear the least resemblance to their previous work. Perhaps this is partially because although Akercocke have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to compose superior death metal, the quality of their first three albums perhaps dictates that continuing in this direction can only ever result in diminishing returns, as the startling nature of their take on the genre is lost amidst the now contempt-breeding familiarity of this sound. It is surely also a consequence of the fact that hearing a band as versatile as Akercocke providing their unique slant on a broader array of sounds is never likely to be less than intriguing, and when it is as resoundingly successful as it is here, the joy in the listener being jolted anew by a band that could easily be taken for granted provides the same kind of gratification obtained from their earlier records, but in a refreshingly different way.

The title track is most emblematic of the band’s new approach, containing only homeopathic traces of the band that made Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene. Tribal drums beat an opening tattoo, joined by meandering guitar figures, draped in roomy reverb, which gradually builds into classic metal guitar flourishes, not unlike the shades of 1980s metal that occasionally peak through the progressive metal of Ihsahn’s early solo albums. A little less like the Emperor mainman, this is the prelude to a thumping electro section verging on dubstep, which brings the digital side of the Akercocke sound to the fore with a greater degree of assurance than they have ever displayed, before a supremely arrogant Coroner-style tech-thrash riff obliterates any listener that remains unconvinced by Akercocke circa 2005. Sweeping clean guitars round out a majestic track, re-imagining the sound of Cynic’s Focus, minus the distinctive vocals of that particular album, and once again it seems that the band have effortlessly achieved the ingestion and seamless assimilation of almost the entire history of rock and metal, re-configuring a bewildering arsenal of lethal weapons into something entirely of their own, and it’s difficult to avoid being swept up in the sheer audacity of it all.

One could easily pick out almost any track other than the customary atmospheric interludes, themselves an irresistible call to pray at the altar of this mighty band, as a highlight, each one containing some nugget of triumphant majesty, or yet another alchemical combination of seemingly incompatible musical ingredients. Although Words That Go Unspoken… could not be said to be front-loaded, the tracks that, together with ‘Verdelet’, complete a stunning opening triple-whammy are rather special. ‘Seduced’ is a never-ending stream of dismembered ideas that all land as intended, initially combining black metal note selection with precise death metal riffing, as if Satyricon were covering Carcass, before channelling the major key hippie death metal of Lykathea Aflame to bafflingly successful effect, and even finding the time to resurrect the guitar-synths of Pestilence’s unfairly maligned Spheres for some ingenious lead guitar runs. ‘Shelter From The Sand’ tops this, with arguably Akercocke’s most epic track yet. The opening sections are the kind of dissonant death metal that has long characterised their sound, but the final third is a blissful blend of shimmering prog guitars, stark piano lines, and deft vocal melodies. Each fragile note is a sliver of beauty, like lone trees on a barren mountainside, and the band appear at once nakedly vulnerable in a way that they have never allowed themselves to be seen before. Commonly Akercocke’s music has been an ego-filled display of elite supremacy; ‘Shelter From The Sand’ transcends ego in favour of something more cosmically infinite, and less earthbound – spacegaze in place of shoegaze. Once again, we find Akercocke sonically prefiguring some of the extreme metal trends that have seen increased popularity in the 2010s and beyond, bringing together the kind of dreamy post-black metal of Alcest and Deafheaven and the sci-fi death metal of Blood Incantation and Cryptic Shift into a singular sonic brew, some years before these distinct takes on extreme metal solidified into the more focussed sub-genres that we see today. Elsewhere, penultimate track ‘The Penance’ feels almost like the culmination of everything that Akercocke have achieved thus far, perfectly packaged into a seamless display of magnificence. Within the first minute of the track, stuttering, off-kilter death metal has birthed spidery prog, which in turn gives way to chromatic, Marduk-style relentless black metal blasting, spliced with the grandiloquent melodicism of Opeth at their best, the frostbitten North intruding from a parallel dimension into warmth of the near East evoked by the Arabic-sounding intervals utilised in the track’s main melody. Few metal bands display this level of ambition, and fewer still have the skill to pull it off in the way that Akercocke do with insouciant ease.

Somewhat frustratingly, as they did on Choronzon, Akercocke choose to close the album in perplexing fashion, with ‘Lex Talionis’. Although there is something amusingly contrarian about their tendency to opt for the atmospheric comedown as the final track over the mounting epic of metallic might that they could so easily choose, it also leaves the listener with a sense of loss and slight disappointment, when the knowledge that the perfectly sequenced and fulfilling alternative is so close at hand. ‘Lex Talionis’ itself is an interesting track, the heat of North Africa and the Middle East palpably permeating the band’s lift of Black Sabbath’s ‘Spiral Architect’, creating an enticing and enveloping atmosphere, but it’s ultimately a desultory journey, travelling, but never arriving. While it would have worked perfectly as an interlude, after the all-conquering fury of ‘The Penance’, it is unavoidably anti-climactic. This should not unduly affect our evaluation of Words That Go Unspoken… as a whole though. Although not the complete departure that some would have us believe – at its heart, this is an Akercocke record that exists in a clear relation to the discography that preceded it – it is an album on which the band utilise the total freedom that their mastery of the metal genre affords them to produce an extravagant and progressive triumph. It’s not quite their best; that honour remains bestowed upon The Goat Of Mendes, but it is a vital addition to their catalogue that bears virtually endless repeated plays, and conclusively proves that artistic evolution and the expansion of an extreme metal band’s sound need not come at the price of the band’s soul, which remains resolutely intact.

Score: 90%