Author: BD Joyce
- 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.