Dream on with Alcest

A collection of songs written about a fantasy land conjured in one’s dreams doesn’t sound very black metal. That sounds kind of Disney.

Yet it IS black metal, or at least as much as Alcest, brainchild of French musician Neige (he’s joined by drummer Winterhalter), play to that genre. Neige has quite a past with bands as varied as Peste Noire, Lantlôs and Amesoeurs, and his current gig fronting Forgotten Woods, but none of those acts quite capture to imagination in the same way as Alcest. The music is gorgeous, built on soundscapes, and certainly does convey the feeling one might have once deep slumber sets in and your brain goes into storyline mode. It stretches out your imagination and sets up camp, letting you grab onto ideas and concepts you perhaps never considered before. I know that sounds kind of random and perhaps a little drug-induced. Sure, it does. But it has nothing to do with that. As scary as Alcest can sound at times, for the most part, they take you on a journey without the help of mind-altering substances.

Throughout the band’s decade-long run, Alcest have put out some really fascinating material. Their debut full-length effort “Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde” dropped domestically in 2007 on Profound Lore, and after a few split efforts, they followed that up with 2010’s stunning “Écailles de Lune,” which came to us by way of Prophecy Productions. That record in particular had some memorable, seemingly innocent looking artwork and was one of the most noteworthy album covers of the entire year. The band even launched a U.S. tour after that record came out, even stopping by to entertain us lowly Pittsburgh people, who don’t normally gets shows like that one.

So with the Alcest name firmly established, it seemed proper to revisit their roots, namely their 2005 EP “Le Secret.” Prophecy has given that two-song effort reissue treatment, but it isn’t just a rehash. Alcest actually went back into the studio and re-recorded the entire thing, and that’s packaged with the original versions of the tracks. As it was, the original version of “Le Secret” already ran nearly a half hour, a pretty hefty running time for just a couple of tracks, so with the new versions tacked on, this thing lasts nearly an hour long. But is it worth it? Is it necessary? I’d say it is.

First of all, landing an original copy of “Le Secret” isn’t exactly easy. There were only 1,000 copies pressed, so if you want one, get ready to pay handsomely. I just did a super quick search on Google, Amazon and eBay, and I could not find one. The effort itself, according to the bio that accompanies the new version, sets out the framework that is essential for all other works of Alcest: Music and lyrics are used here by Neige as a medium to channel and communicate the esoteric experiences of his early childhood. That pays more to the innocence and raw understanding of fantasy worlds that Neige tries to reach and understand. Listening to these songs, you never feel the evil and chaos typically delivered by most black metal bands, so immediately you know you’re in a different place.

And calling these songs simply black metal is wrong. It’s a base, really, and sometime Neige does use screams and shrieks typical of the genre, like he does on the track “Elevation.” But normally the music is rather lovely and heart-gushingly melodic, so much so that someone with an aversion to metal might even find themselves caught up in this stuff. There is an overt post-rock/shoegaze tone that serves these songs well. The music just bleeds delicacy and wonder, and its embrace of the dream world and those narratives does make you reach back to your youth when these types of things were the most important to you. Remember a time before bills, jobs, deadlines, debt? Taking on Alcest lets you find that place again.

As noted, “Elevation” is the darker of the two cuts, while the title track is more peaceful and organically gazey. In fact, the re-recorded versions actually flesh out the songs and their pockets of sound better than the originals. So there’s your reasoning behind redoing these tracks. Very little, if anything, was changed this time around, but the song production is better, livelier, and more enveloping. That, I’d say, is good enough reason for tackling these songs. Simply put, they made them sound better. Another example to validate the 2011 take on these songs comes when the lush keys bleed into “Elevation.” Their presence is known right away and quickly circles you, while on the original, it takes about 30 seconds before you really can even hear the keys.

“Le Secret” is an essential piece to your Alcest collection, because it rang in what Neige wanted to accomplish musically and set up the world he would explore. It’s certainly better understood now after two full-length albums and the band’s acceptance in the metal world. While metal, and black metal specifically, tends to make people think of the ugly, seedy, sinister parts of their world, Alcest show the other side. There is enough pain and suffering conveyed by a hundred million metal bands, and there’s a point to exposing that side, but Alcest is such a breath of fresh air. Neige’s music always captivates and captures, and “Le Secret” was just the beginning of this journey, one that surely will have more chapters to devour as Neige travels into his future.

For more on Alcest, go here: http://www.alcest-music.com/

To buy “Le Secret,” go here: http://shop.prophecy.de/

For more on the label, go here: http://www.prophecyproductions.de/front_content.php