By Stephen Hiscock
Shoegaze, dream-pop, black metal, post metal, blackgaze – too many bloody labels. Instructions for the insecure. Alcest have had all of these pinned onto them at some point. In the end though, it’s whether you’re moved by the music or not – a signpost pointing at it won’t help.
Recorded with Sigur Rós’s producer (Birgir Jon Birgisson) in Iceland, Shelter (Alcest’s fourth album) is the sound of massive landscapes, cathedrals, Tavener-esque meditations and mysteries, small and large. Spidery guitar figures creep in and out of soft clouds of layered green-grey strings. Songs gather pace and size and then slowly breathe out again. There is a religiosity and all-embracing comfort about the music. The album cover is warmed by the sun and the title means safety.
Nothing is hurried. Songs take their time to build. ‘L’Eveil Des Muses’ starts with a small tangled guitar riff (with a bit of Lynchian whammy bar). This layers up and layers up, adding cymbal rolls, pedal bass guitar, drums and strings. The build is such that, by the time the vocals come in (after two and a half minutes), you’re many miles away from where you started. There are simple and still mantra-like melodies (‘Voix Sereines’). ‘Wings’ – a chant that emerges from darkness at the start of the album – bursts into the second song ‘Opale’ but continues with the same tune.
The ten minute album closer ‘Délivrance’ starts with an almost inaudible hum – or is it a breath? Or the sea? A melancholic pastoral guitar riff builds – gradually bleeding into an enormous wordless, circular melody which grows and grows with no end in sight – but it’s suddenly halted with an unexpected chord. The song is stripped of rhythm and only the melody is left, gradually set adrift into the distance and dark from where the album started.
There is sympathetic, sometimes beautiful, drumming from Winterhalter, a guest vocal on ‘Away’ from Neil Halstead (Slowdive) and languorous strings from Amiina – but Alcest is fundamentally the work of one man – Neige. He was a one man band (after losing two original members Aegnor and Argoth in 2001) until the arrival of Winterhalter in 2009. Neige has said the music and life of Alcest is an attempt to convey memories of his childhood mystical experiences – happy, magical experiences he finds hard to put into words. The sounds and moods of Shelter are enormous and amorphous. The themes are eternal. How do you fit all that onto a small, little label? Why would you want to?
Shelter is released by Prophecy Productions