Review Summary: Alcest's most accessible and focused effort to date.
In the summer of 2015, I was at the only festival I’ve actively attended for years: Graspop Metal Meeting. Once a year, 130.000 people descend on a little village in Belgium to celebrate metal music and culture. I remember it being a particularly warm evening and the sun was setting, when we decided that no, the band we were watching was not at their best, and we’d go hope for luck elsewhere. And so we wandered into a big, dusty and smoky festival tent where Alcest started playing. The tent was not even half full, but those who were there were treated to the best performance of the weekend. Whether it was the dreamy, atmospheric music, the hazy lighting or the complete unexpectedness of wandering into it, Alcest at Graspop 2015 became one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended. I’ve seen them a couple of times since then, and while they were always excellent, that first impression has never been topped.
It should need no saying that after that, Alcest holds a special place in my heart. Yet when a band keeps delivering time and again, it gets to a point where I get a little nervous when new material gets announced. Surely at some point they will slip up and have that one record that’s either too much of the same, or a failed experiment? Listening to the first single of ‘Spiritual Instinct’, Protection
, didn’t help much to calm my nerves. Alcest’s trademark melodies and gorgeous earworms seemed to have been given a backseat over riffs and a more traditional ‘metal’ sound. I figured that I would do myself a favor and not listen to the second single before the entire album was released, because clearly the songs needed to be heard in context.
After listening to ‘Spiritual Instinct’ in full though, the only thought I have about these early reservations is: They did it again! The dark and brooding start of Les jardins de minuit
give a great picture of what you can expect from this album. A moody bass and drum section lays the foundation for the main theme of the song, that gets introduced by a lead guitar and is quickly taken over by Neige’s ethereal vocals. It is a short but sweet buildup before diving headlong into a ferocious blast-beat that hits with a force we have not seen since their earlier work. It’s angry, melancholic and immediate. Yet Alcest wouldn’t be Alcest without drenching it in a delicious sauce of atmosphere, coming from both lush guitar melodies and Neige’s characteristic clean vocals.
Although ‘Spiritual Instinct’ is never revolutionary, it does have its clear evolutions. For one, it is a step further towards a more riff driven, rougher sound. It’s almost as far from ‘Kodama’ in its aggression as ‘Kodama’ was from ‘Shelter’. Yes almost every song still has its moments of quiet introspection, but only Le Miroir
is actually calm. Whether it is the more up-tempo nature of Sapphire
or the recurring riffs in Protection
, every song here has something that demands attention. It keeps the six songs from blurring together and makes for a very focused listening experience.
Speaking of demanding attention, the second half of the album might be the best 23 minutes Alcest have ever put on tape. L’Île des Morts
especially feels like the centerpiece of the record, combining every aspect that make Alcest great. Otherworldly, almost dream-pop melodies, great musical layering, Neige screaming from the top of his lungs, outbursts of instrumental ferociousness and a godly climax. The song has it all. It’s easy to see the following Le Miroir
as a breather, but after a few listens it opens up as its own beauty, building on a clear theme in almost post-rock fashion. It paves the way for the final song, the anthemic title track, to come in with full effect. The most traditional Alcesty song if you will, it is the only song you could argue would fit better on ‘Kodama’, but that is precisely what makes it stand out to me and fits as the perfect closing track.
‘Spiritual Instinct’ stands strong in Alcest’s already mighty discography. It progresses from ‘Kodama’ without losing any of its core traits, and the more riff driven approach and short runtime make it Alcest’s most accessible and focused effort to date.