Review Summary: Alcest's most pleasant release may lose them a few fans, but it still bears their trademark emotion that many have come to love.
It was always going to come to this.
When you are the forefront of a genre, you can imagine the difficulty when you inevitably get tired of what you’ve created. Historical examples come in plenty, either an artist keeps plugging away at the same thing, most of the time missing the point, although occasionally getting some good material in, or the artist will completely leave behind the style, maybe start a new band in a different genre, or just take a complete tangent to the it, alienating fans, but also creating new ones. I could take the example of a band like Marillion, who more or less invented Neo-Prog, leaving the style in the dust after just four records, because I think they felt it was getting dry already. And then their counterparts, IQ, who stuck with the style for their whole career, knocking away at getting it right, but never quite getting the same as the beginning (of course, for the sake of analogy, I’ll ignore Frequency, which is obviously their best).
So Neige, frontrunner of this ‘Blackgaze’ genre that’s been coming up for a while, has finally decided to leave it behind, with the fourth full-length album of Alcest, his main band, Shelter. It wasn’t hard to see this coming, Les voyages de l'âme was more or less a dark Shoegaze album with a couple of blast beats and screaming parts, and mapping the natural progressions of musicians normally show them creating full albums based on small elements introduced in previous records. Hopefully this means the next Alcest album will be entirely in English sung by Neil Halstead…
Neige has little tricks that he uses, throughout all of the Alcest releases, an even over into his other bands, like Lantlôs and Amesoeurs. You’ll know the delay-ridden acoustic guitar, the low rumble of what is often a loop of Neige singing a single note, the slightly jangly chord sound that often comes in after the aforementioned acoustic/delay part. Theory people will know the diminished chords and the resolutions on V and IV, just the little things that remind us of who’s composing. But what Neige has done with Shelter, by cutting off any remnants of their metal past, black metal or not, he has essentially cut his list of tricks in two. Gone are the blast beats, the fantastic screams. Gone are the reverb-drenched overdrive riffs that pack such a punch to this dreamy music. And although I’m trying not to sound like a disgruntled metalhead who wants it to be br00tal, it means that this album is mostly one-sided.
And sure, you could argue that dropping the heaviness could open Neige up to new sounds, but honestly, this is just everything on the previous records, but without the metal. Sure, the addition of the string parts is new, but that just piles on the dreaminess even more until it becomes Valtari-levels of ambience. This album is more or less the same thing start to finish in terms of mood and atmosphere.
But as much as this is a change from the Alcest I love, this is still a great record. It’s slow, I’ll admit, but once you give it a few listens, even the tiny little melodies that each track develops become glorious. Alcest have always been about emotion, in all of their albums, and Shelter is no different. Except, unlike Écailles de lune, this isn’t a depressing album that you want to listen to alone in a darkened room and cry about. This is an uplifting record, euphoric even. The same level of emotional saturation that Alcest have had is still there, but it’s focused on happy emotions. Glory, peace, dreams, aspirations, the haze isn’t a cover over darkened emotions anymore, it’s a positive haze, like staring at the sun…
Oh yeah, I’m trying hard not to mention a certain big deal with a pink cover that people are inevitably going to compare this to, but it’s just too obvious. Alcest have gone happy, the cover is a blurry picture of the sun with people covering it. It’ll be hard to avoid mentioning the words sun, bat, and her. But in my honest opinion, Sunbather wasn’t a happy record, at least not like Shelter is. People are inevitably going to say that Alcest are copying, or bandwagoning with, Deafheaven, with the concept and idea behind this album, so I feel we need to mention the fact that Deafheaven wouldn’t exist without Alcest. Moving on…
I’ve a had a huge case of the lead single effect with "Opale", a track that I didn’t think much of when its video was released, but now can’t get enough of. The lead hook, the atmospheric aaahs and oohs that the album opens with in “Wings” may be insanely simple, but somehow Neige creates a beautifully uplifting atmosphere with such a simple motif, which is more or less the essence of Alcest’s music. The same thing happens in “Voix Sereines”, another of my favourite tracks, with that simple little motif that even a child could think of, but Neige uses his voice and his pedalboard to bring it to utter glory. But I have to comment on the lead riff of “Opale”, which I’m still not convinced on. It just feels slightly off. I really like the notes and the progression, but the rhythm is weird and off-putting, somehow sounding like it’s in an odd signature when it’s really in straight 4/4. I thought that it would grow on me and I would get used to it, but it still bugs me 10 listens later.
The other highlight track here is obviously going to be “Away”, Alcest’s first English song, featuring Slowdive singer Neil Halstead. On my first listen to Shelter, I have to admit that it got a bit boring, as pleasant and pretty as it was. The songs just mix into a haze of ambient vocals and delay and reverb and (new on this record) strings. But then Away comes, with Neil’s rather regular vocal delivery, speaking in English. Now, I have to admit my lack of education that, despite knowing about them for years, I have never actually listened to Slowdive (although I know exactly what I’m doing when this review is done), but the match of this simple voice with Alcest’s dreamy instrumentation is nearly perfect. Neige’s distant background vocals lift up the chorus to great heights, and with this song situated right around the point when you start to get bored of the same sound, it’s nearly perfect in reminding you that Alcest are still moving forward.
Although I enjoy this record, I feel in terms of the sheer number of great riffs and motifs throughout Écailles De Lune and Les Voyages, this is always going to pale in comparison. The mood of the music is new and fresh and wonderful for Alcest, but I think in terms of the quantity of riffs that I say are amazing, this isn’t their best. And I think, honestly, that’s the only reason that I believe this is the weakest Alcest album yet, simply because of the quantity of great ideas. I love it, but taking the perspective of others, I can see how many who are not Alcest fanboys may find this ‘boring’. I really hope Neige continues the happier mood onto further albums, but he really should develop some more great melodies to base the atmosphere on. Like the final track, 10-minute “Délivrance”. Ever since “Eccailes De Lune”, the idea of a 10-minute Alcest track has been in the minds of everyone, wanting another thundering epic. But Délivrance just sort of meanders, holding together its main theme in waves of ambience. It’s pleasant music, but the fact that the 9 minutes of “Eccailes De Lune Part I” had more riffs than half of this album really shows how drawn out these pieces are becoming.
Shelter may not be a perfect record. It lacks the sheer quantity of great riffs and melodies that the past Alcest albums had, but I’m definitely loving the happier side. Allegedly this is the first Alcest record where Neige has stopped writing about his ‘experience’ (what it exactly is is still unclear), when he was a child, representing a moving forward of Alcest’s music into something new. Even though I think that Les Voyages is their best record, I could definitely see where people were coming from when they said it was trying to recreate past glory, and Shelter is most certainly a big step forward. It does get a bit empty sometimes, and a few of the songs, for a significant amount of time, are just pleasant ambience, but Opale and Away are definitely amongst Alcest’s best tracks.