Album: Spiritual Instinct
Largely considered to be the pioneers of the crossover genre known as “blackgaze”, the French duo Alcest have constantly bridged the gap between heavy and melodic music since its inception at the turn of the 21st century. Beginning as a solo project, the brainchild of primary songwriter/composer Stéphane “Neige” Paut ultimately evolved into a full live quartet featuring his fellow studio member and drummer, Jean “Winterhalter” Deflandre. Neige and Winterhalter have provided the entirety of Alcest’s sonic backbone for the last decade, carrying on the legacy of the band’s preceding one-man efforts which gave them their notoriety and success. This most recent effort, Spiritual Instinct, due out Friday October 25th via Nuclear Blast Records, is a rather interesting take on all of the band’s recent work. The obvious and expected combinations of distorted melodic blackened riffs, shrieking highs, and softer shoegaze segments sprinkled with soothing singing and catchy chorus-like lullabies will suddenly shift together, then move completely perpendicular from one another as if to let the other shine brighter, yet never taking away from either their separate or combined impact.
The album’s opening track, “Les Jardins de Minuit” (“Midnight Gardens”), is a prime example—a chilling drone of an intro quickly gives way to slow and deliberate blast beats, setting an exhilarating pace for the rest of the album. The balance of melody and harsh screams from Neige is masterfully executed from the get-go, as are the percussive precision and tasteful rhythmic arrangements handled by Winterhalter, leaving the listener with entire segments of music replaying in their head long after the song reached its end. When we arrive at the album’s lead single, “Protection”, a massive wailing wall of depressive sound hits us right between the eyes with mesmerizing synth accompaniment and girthy drum swells. Alcest doesn’t let up too quickly whatsoever before continuing with “Sapphire”, the final single dropped before the album’s release. Channeling the likes of bands such as Basement, Slowdive, and Citizen, “Sapphire” stands out above the rest of the album as a testament to the versatility of the genre. The majority of this track consists of Neige singing along to simple chords and a basic backbeat—nothing out of the ordinary in contemporary rock music—but having such a sound thrown in the blender along with Alcest’s traditional melodic prowess creates something truly remarkable and especially memorable compared to most other bands in the genre. Of all the hooks found in Neige’s repertoire on Spiritual Insrinct, I catch myself singing along to “Sapphire” most of all.
The second half of Spiritual Instinct begins with “L’Ile des Morts” (Isle of the Dead) sonically bringing us along on a calming, metrically modulated stroll through its vast caves of endless reverb in search of the perfect acoustic ambience. This is a feat which Alcest have managed to convey through sheer tonal arrangement; the musical landscapes painted in this song alone would cramp the hands of the greatest cartographer before they could so much as digest what they had just heard. Much of the same can also be said about the proceeding track, “Le Miroir”. A slowly-churning, haunting literal drum-and-bass intro quickly builds and cascades into the unexpected—a chance to catch your breath before locking you back in with another warming chordal theme. This appropriately sums up the mood of the last half of the album as we reach the title track, one final trip down the rainy streets of France through the ears and minds of Neige and Winterhalter themselves. Full of entrancing, moving rhythms and drum-fills, “Spiritual Instinct” serves as the perfect emotional climax for the album and for the listener.
Embarking on this six-song journey as a listener, we had little-to-no idea of what to what to expect. With 2014’s Kodama, we saw Alcest taking another welcome-yet-unexpected stylistic and conceptual change off the heels of the prior release, Shelter, in which the band opted to leave heavy music out of the recipe altogether. Would they take it another step further? And if so, in what direction would Alcest be taking us? The answer seems to be anywhere and everywhere. I struggle to compare the sound of Spiritual Instinct to any one of their respective releases before this; however, it can be best described as a “heavier” Les Voyages with an appropriate amount of Shelter sprinkled on top. This album is a magnificent display of Alcest at the peak of their songwriting career and will surely create a ripple of influence all throughout underground music for years to come.
FFO: Lantlos, Astronoid, Deafheaven, Uada