Review Summary: Blackgaze's prodigal daughter is here to offer you an accord. Do not decline her offer.
Do whatever it takes to distant yourself from the harsh reality of the world we live in. These two years have been especially unforgiving. First, a global pandemic, now the shadow of world war 3, and who knows what's yet to come in the second half of this decade. At this rate, I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss fears of an alien invasion. But seriously, it's of the essence that you put your mind in a better place if you have the chance to do so, some, unfortunately, don’t have that luxury nowadays. Look at Katherine Shepherd, who has spent four full album cycles pretending she is a naiad hatched from an elf's egg. Is that relevant to this review? Absolutely not. Do I intend to steal a light laugh out of such moronic thought? Absolutely yes. Welcome to the safest place of a sane mind: music, and in extension, to Blackgaze's prodigal daughter Sylvaine's fourth album conundrum.
And I say conundrum because with four records on your back it feels quite superfluous to talk about potential, and I rather be talking about results here, but as Nova
unfolds itself with a magnificent choral of celestial voices as naked as our very own Sylvaine is in the cover of the album, I can't seem to shake off the ominous feel that what is about to be unleashed is going to be an echo of things past, as beautiful as they were, and as old as they have aged. Surely, "Mono No Aware" (from the Japanese descriptor of the ephemeral nature of things), doesn't attempt to hide what's been arguably blighting Sylvaine's music since the release of Wistful
in 2016: her undeniable and incommensurable worshipping love of Alcest. It's not like Shepherd has ever denied the French’s influence in her craft either, in fact, she even invited the man, Neige, to play on Wistful
, an invitation he honored on the drum stool, banging the kit as hard and fast as he could, and furthermore, this very album has been recorded on French soil. But contrary to what the audience has ever thought, it was Shepard herself who recorded everything else on that record, and it has been that way in every album she has released after (namely Atoms Aligned...
and this one).
Part of me, the most egoistical, eccentrically and despotically critical part of me, wishes or even commands that the Norwegian songstress at this point would have made something different with Nova
. Sylvaine's last album is not exactly "an evolution" of anything, but the recreation and even improvement of the same formula that has earned her the "Alcest's sister band" honorific title. In a way, this is disappointing, because I keep thinking of what could have been, and only at times I found myself lost in a dazed enjoyment of her night wraith screams lashing out against the cascade of guitar melodies and roaring blast beats. It’s that time when I think to myself: "what if it has to be this way?".
What if Sylvaine was always meant to be stylistically married to the works of Neige and Alcest, pushing the boundaries of the duality of Alcest's music, while offering a different but familiar view of soundscapes fans of Alcest have already explored, but that are now presented to them under a different light and voice? I was asking you at the beginning of this rambling to shelter yourself from the horrors of the world and I wasn't half joking. Sylvaine's music is highly evocative, nostalgic even, a gateway into a world of nymphs, ghosts and empyreal remnants from beyond the veil. In spite of its ambitious length, "Mono No Aware" manages to cradle you for nine minutes effortlessly, transitioning into the hazing gaze of "Nowhere, Still Somewhere" almost seamlessly, like an opulent dream, and that’s not a feat a mere copycat can get away with.
Sylvaine’s enthralling power is hard to fight off. Even if the second half of Nova
presents its own series of challenges, as it's not easy to keep a spell of this proportion working for this long unless the bewitched is submitting willingly to it, Shepherd shows she’s not new into these waters anymore. "Fortapt" is a long shot, literally. Twelve minutes that show the best of Sylvaine while also letting the fragile needlework that keeps together her ethereal mantle surface. She somehow acknowledges this, placing the colossal track in the middle, and closing her last array of tunes with two shorter and effective cuts, "I Close My Eyes So I Can See", a song that combines the most melodic side of her debut, Silent Chamber, Noisy Heart
, with the larger scale of her latest albums. It's a song with a clear structure, and it's sure to leave an early mark on your first pass through Nova
. Closing the album is "Everything Must Come to an End", which is as sinister as a title can get with the kind of storm that’s raging outside, but its content contrasts with this feel, featuring Shepherd voice only accompanied by the crystalline tone of her guitar and some other tranquil sounds reverberating in the deep corners of the song.
Owners of special editions and whatnots will be also rewarded with an extra dose of Alcestian stupor in the form of bonus track "Dissolution", which could have been very well included in the middle of the album and it wouldn't have felt out of place. Whether you end your journey through Sylvaine's latest with the vanishing strings of "Everything Must Come to an End" or with the fairy chanting of "Dissolution", the feeling of having withdrawn from this world even if for just a few moments will be difficult to ignore. Nova
is a delightful sonic voyage through the heart and soul of Katherine Shepherd, a rewarding and fulfilling extension of everything she has ever done. Do not confuse stagnation with awareness here, a common error we are all capable of. While myriad of artists spend their whole career looking for a creative promise land that may or may not exist, Sylvaine can already say she has found her own, and you're welcome in anytime you want, far from the horrors of this dark, dark, world.