Alcest defy metal’s boundaries, deliver a dramatic shoegaze wonderland on new ‘Shelter’

“You’ll grow out if,” is something most of us hear from authority figures or parents or both when we’re growing up because of something we acquire an interest in. Usually they say that as a manner of relief so that they can rest assured one day this particular so-called scourge can be expunged and the person goes on to more acceptable interests.

Sometimes that ends up being true and a person does indeed grow out of something, or it turns out the person really liked the thing he or she discovered, sort of how I have been with heavy metal since I was, oh, 10 years old. But let’s not discount the growth factor, because sometimes people’s tastes and interests do change and morph throughout time, especially when it comes to musicians. The anger, angst, and brutality one wanted to show in the late teens or early 20s isn’t necessarily going to be there a decade or so later, so I’ve found it unfair when people pile on someone and take them to task for changing a sound. It happens, and as long as it’s done organically, and not just to make a fast buck, then what’s the issue?

promoThat’s sure to rise again now with Alcest’s new record “Shelter,” a collection that doesn’t really sound like something that would get reviewed on a site such as this. But the band began heavier in their early days of 2005 EP “Le Secret” and 2007 full-length debut “Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde,” though they never were grisly or violent ever. Alcest visionary Neige–a veteran of bands such as Peste Noire, Amesoeurs, Lantlos, and Old Silver Key just to name a few–used this forum as a way to project himself back into a fantasy dreamland he says he’d visit as a kid. It was an escape, a place of beauty and peace, and as time went on and more and more records showed up from this band, Neige and musical partner Winterhalter (Bahhrect, Phobos, and also formerly of Amesoeurs and Peste Noire) pulled further and further away from heavy metal and into a shoegaze fog that was far more serene and beautiful than the music from which both musicians originated. It was obvious for a long time Alcest’s ultimate goal wasn’t intended to be a metal band, but rather something far for ambitious and all encompassing, and that goal has been achieved to the maximum on “Shelter,” the album that is sure to drive off those who only desire metal. But it’s going to find a tidal wave of more listeners who can appreciate the dreamy sounds, melodies, and pretty sights. It’s a major shakeup but one anyone paying attention had to see coming. This can’t come as a shock.

Now it comes down to what you make of the music and if you can digest this phase of Alcest’s transformation. Neige himself has said that he considers influences far beyond metal when it comes to this band (we’ll be smacked right in the head with that later in the review), but there’s already derision rising over the record from some, and my guess is not because the music isn’t good. It’s because it’s not metal. And it isn’t. But why must that matter. If you can disassociate yourself from preconceived notions or the demand for brutality, you might find a collection of sweeping, dream-inducing, surging songs that find this duo realizing creative highs they never would have realized had they stuck to a rigid template. It’s a record that might even be dropping a little early, as it’ll make great, breezy spring listening when things are coming back to life. Hell, I have tons of metal albums, so I don’t need Alcest to mimic those. I happy with this duo as they are, and this progression feels and sounds right.

The record begins with a lush, greeny “Lungs” that sets the stage for the rest of the record and gives you an answer right off the bat as to what you can expect from the rest. That leads to “Opale,” that’s flush with shoegaze power, energetic vocal melodies (especially during the chorus), and a full journey into otherworldly wonder. It’s a really catchy thing, and you easily can get swept away by what the band’s conjuring here. Then it’s on to “La Nuit Marche Avec Moi” (which translated means “The Night Walk With Me”) that greets you with bent, almost surfy guitar work, a sense of spring fever in the melodies, and guitars that erupt in waves and rush all over you, making them the perfect companion of Neige’s clean, soaring vocals that always have been a strong point of this band. “Voix Sereines” (“Serene Voices”) follows and is far moodier and darker, benefitting from Birgir Jon Birgisson’s production as he pokes at that Sigur Ros sound he helped craft in the studio. Some distortion charges up here and there to give a hint of agitation, but for the most part this song is comprised of bright playing, wordless singing toward the end of the song, and a glorious personality they craft to near perfection.

“L’Éveil des Muses” (“The Awakening of the Muses”) has a murky, ominous open when compared to the rest of the record, though it’s not angry by any means. Dark melodies spiral behind the composition, cloudy guitars set up and begin to dampen the area, and Neige’s vocals carry through and then above all that fog. It’s the least shimmery song on the collection and it’s as close as you’ll get to feeling like death is near. The title cut has a mid-tempo makeup, but as the song develops, it really lures you into the big picture. There is an unforgettable, surging chorus that bursts with life, as well as an emotional outpouring you can’t help but feel deep inside of you, and once the final piano trickles and the song crescendos, you’ll feel like you’ve gone on a magical journey. “Away” lets Neige wear his influences right on his sleeve–and places them in front of the song–as Slowdive’s Neil Halstead handles lead vocals, delivering the only track written in English. The song begins and ends with deep pockets of folk melodies, and in the middle of the song, Halstead hits all the right buttons, delivering lines such as, “I wish my mind could wander without pain,” with depth and humanity. The 10:05 closer “Délivrance” is a massive conclusion, with noise wooshes, thick, gorgeous strings (courtesy of Amiina’s string section through the record) guitars dripping and then building into a frenzy, higher-register vocals from Neige to complement his normal laid-back tones, the band spitting light with their playing, and a final few minutes that lets the emotion crest and then gently fade.

There are bound to be listeners disappointed with this record–and Alcest as a whole–because this is a totally different record for the band. Yes, they’ve been building to this, but there still will be people who are shocked awake and will have knee jerk reactions. But don’t let that happen to you. This is a glorious, beautiful record that cements Alcest as one of this era’s most giving, emotionally honest shoegaze bands, and “Shelter” just might open this group to more people. There’s probably no turning back for Alcest, and that’s OK. Sometimes we grow beyond boundaries, and we should all be so lucky to do it as gracefully as Neige and Winterhalter.

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