Kodama by Alcest

Release date: September 30, 2016
Label: Prophecy Productions

I do admire bands that starkly divide opinion within their chosen genres. It tends to suggest they are bringing something unexpected, innovative to the party. Some Traditionalists might be altogether unsettled, not comfortable with what such irksome upstarts might be doing to the style of music they love. While the more open-minded will welcome these Artists as they attempt to breathe new life into tried and trusted formulas. It is certainly no guarantee of aural brilliance, this boundary pushing, genre-splicing, and more often than not in my own experience can lead to a fragmented and frustrating listen. But sometimes a band comes along with a sound and style that I have found to be brand new, wonderfully defined and instantly compelling.

For more than fifteen years, Stephane Paut, universally known as Neige, has used his Alcest project to deliver a pioneering amalgamation of black metal and shoegaze- ‘blackgaze’ (well it’s definitely a better term than ‘shoe metal’). For the largest part of Alcest’s existence, Neige has been the sole permanent member, although he has been joined in his quest since 2009 by former Les Discrets drummer Winterhalter. Since their debut EP in 2005, Le Secret, Alcest have produced a sound that is fundamentally founded in metal, with Neige’s anguished, screamed vocals and tumultuous blastbeats most characterising these blackened roots. However, within this bleak, harsh landscape lies a theatrical and ethereal spirit, with Neige using Alcest to communicate supernatural memories from his childhood. In addition, his very distinctive and hugely uplifting style of guitar playing, accompanied by significant amounts of reverb and keyboard effects, creates a gorgeous, captivating cacophony, which has far more in common with the blissed-out swoon of Cocteau Twins than the brutal extremes of Celtic Frost.

Following three studio albums that didn’t veer too far from this modus operandi, 2014’s Shelter saw a significant shift in sound, with Alcest dispensing entirely with their black metal origins and heading straight for planet shoegaze, with entirely clean singing, and a re-imagining of the huge washes of crystalline guitar swell delivered so expertly in the early nineties by the likes of Slowdive and Kitchens of Distinction. In fact, Neil Halstead of (the since reformed) Slowdive makes a guest appearance on the record, and Neige has latterly admitted that he was really rather obsessed with them at the time of making the record.

Two years on, and released last month, we now have Kodama, a Japanese word meaning ‘tree spirit’, and Alcest’s fifth studio long-player. It is something of a concept album, with the 1997 Hayao Miyazaki fantasy anime film Princess Mononoke informing a lot of the themes and imagery. In essence, it is Neige expressing grave concern about the growing imbalance between the human and natural worlds. Musically, therefore, it perhaps needed to be darker, harsher and a lot less cheerful than Shelter. And it is. You could argue that it is simply Alcest returning to their black metal roots. For me, it is Alcest arriving at their perfect destination- an intoxicating, equitable union of destruction and delicacy.

Kodama opens with the title track, and those beautifully familiar, shimmering chords are straight into earshot. Neige’s abundantly clean vocals and spiritual harmonising intertwine with swelling instrumentation, as the track breaks into a progressive, Asian flavoured, windswept epic. Oh yes.

The following ‘Eclosion’ has a becalmed, slightly ponderous intro, which suddenly gives way to a detonation of thunderous blastbeats and the first return of Neige’s scream. While ‘Je Suis D’ailleurs’ (I am from elsewhere) grabs attention immediately with a gorgeous wall of sound that Alcest seem to deliver so effortlessly. Neige alternates between his earthy, elegant vocal tone, beguiling “ooos” and “ahhs” and tormented, faraway howls, while the quieter parts of the track stunningly recall Elizium era Fields of the Nephilim in timbre and otherworldliness.

‘Untouched’ sounds most like the material from Shelter, especially ‘Délivrance’, that album’s epic conclusion, with a glistening shoegaze tremelo, sombre tone and soothing atmosphere, before, for me, the album’s high water mark, the colossal, elegiac ‘Oiseaux De Proie’ (Bird of Prey). It is certainly the most metal sounding track on the record, and the minor chord sequence during the closing couple of minutes of the track is utterly devastating- perhaps an alluring yet harrowing soundtrack to a starving Raptor, soaring high above an enormous forest, now entirely engulfed in flames.

‘Onyx’, a short (by the rest of the album’s standards), experimental and instrumental exercise in tonal guitar shifts and ambient noise concludes proceedings here, and, after the titanic proportion of what had gone before, leaves at least me not fully satisfied. But when two of the central themes that pervade the album are greed and consumption, I really should have let it pass without comment..

A divisive band before their previous record, Shelter saw Alcest go one step further, alienating a large part of their fan base by removing any trace of one particular genre’s characteristics. Without losing any of the cascading, incandescent refinement of their very distinctive wall of sound, Kodama sees Alcest make a ferocious and triumphant arrival back into the arms of black metal. It is ‘blackgaze’, and it is beautifully desolate.

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