Well that was a pleasant surprise. Alcest toured my home-city of Vancouver just this last year, accompanied by Enslaved and (I believe) Ghost – a show I skipped because I am an idiot and ought to be fired. Anyways, as a result of their touring companions’ respective styles, I acquired Les Voyages de l’Âme expecting to hear something akin to Enslaved’s wall-of-prog Black Metal assault (a taste I’m partial to), and instead was faced with something much more, well, pretty. Alcest’s closest musical cousin – in my catalogue, aside from Agalloch – is Isis, a band I’ve once heard described as “the sound of two guitars conversing”. That’s more or less accurate for Isis – once you factor in the double-kicks and the sludge pedals – and like Isis, Alcest is a band driven by instrumentalism, culminating in a sort of aural haze whose vocals, while certainly emphasized, sink deep and end up a part of the audio scenery. In terms of genre, the two share common roots in Black Metal and Shoegaze, and they push their echoing soundscapes out to epic proportions while evoking Shoegaze’s trademark trance-state in the headphone-equipped listener. It’s engaging stuff if you’re in the mood (and in Vancouver’s slushy rainscape, you ought to be), but Alcest would be nothing without their defining, differentiating feature: they’re really, really French.
Straight out of Bagnols-sur-Cèze, Alcest’s music is certainly in French, but their aesthetic goes deeper than that. Les Voyages de l’Âme is pastoral and imaginative, it explores a longing for a lost childhood world of wonder and magic – and so it comes as no surprise that its name means “The Voyages of the Spirit”, or that track titles vary from “Makers of Worlds” to “We Are The Emerald” and “There, Where New Colours Are Born”. There’s an entrenched sense of non-religious spirituality here, born of a fascination with nature and the yearning of band-leader Neige’s sense of childhood peace amongst “Ses prairies eternelles”. Alcest is one man’s vision of the imagined reality he explored as a child, realized through the expansive and often heavy-handed imagery of his lyricism which, although it will be lost on the majority of North American listeners, intentionally recalls Baudelaire as it meanders from “the call of another universe” to “harbors unknown; linking sky and earth”. Les Voyages de l’Âme is frequently beautiful as it undulates from comforting clouds of noise to Niege’s odd, muffled screams on “Faiseurs de Mondes” (which really recalls Enslaved and Isis). It’s going to prove too self-indulgent or outright silly for some, but if you’re in the dreamy mind-state that Alcest demands, Les Voyages de l’Âme is a strange and rewarding listen, owing far more to Shoegaze than the Black Metal touches it occasionally displays. It’s poetic, and Alcest makes the most of their limited armory (no synthesizers here!), melding acoustic and electric instrumentation into a distinctly dream-like listening experience.
I’ve really enjoyed this one: from its anger-less yearning of its screams to the universality of its subject matter, Les Voyages de l’Âme is easy to recommend. Yes there’s a language barrier, but it’s minimal – if you know the album’s title, you know the content of the lyrics, and can safely let the intonation and earnestness of Neige’s frequently-clean vocals take you from there. Knowledge of the French language isn’t an asset here; appreciation of French artistic aesthetics, magical realism and a strong sense of imagination absolutely are. Les Voyages de l’Âme has been on heavy rotation here at the Transylvanilla Office/Coffeehouse lately, and for good reason: Alcest is working hard and making some really good autumnal music. It isn’t going to blow you away with its track-variety, or the ambition of its instrumentalism, or the depth of its metaphysical analysis, but Alcest doesn’t give the impression that they’re aiming for that anyways – they’re intentionally sleepy and dreamy and, yes, self-indulgent. Les Voyages de l’Âme is melancholy and artistic stuff, and if you dig your Black Metal hazy with some thought behind it, there’s no reason this won’t capably last you until our annual slush-storm wears off sometime around August. Or until the next Agalloch release drops.
Originally published right here, January 2012.