ALCEST: SOUVENIRS D'UN AUTRE MONDE (2007)
1) Printemps Emeraude; 2) Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde; 3) Les Iris; 4) Ciel Errant; 5) Sur L'Autre Rive Je T'Attendrai; 6) Tir Nan Og.
From an «everyday basis» point of view, the only shoegazing band the regular Joe really needs to hear, if only to understand what all the fuss is really about, is probably My Bloody Valentine. But even the most limited formula in the world can always opt for some freshness and individuality if you succeed in coming up with the right extra ingredients. And particularly in the 21st century, where we constantly suffer from lack of freshness, this odd need for «synthesizing the unsynthesizable» has revived pretty much every musical genre and sub-direction ever thought of by man, woman, quadrupede, or mineral — shoegazing included.
«Alcest», essentially a one-man project by French musician Stéphane Paut, better known under the code name «Neige» («Snow»), has its roots neither in pop nor in psychedelia, but in black metal: Neige's pedigree begins with Peste Noire, a leading French black metal outfit heavily influenced by the likes of Cannibal Corpse — their discography includes such telling titles as Aryan Supremacy (an early demo where Neige was still playing drums rather than guitar) and Folkfuck Folie, among other things. If this worries you, do not be worried as far as Alcest is concerned: Neige has gone on record stating that, for him, his career in Peste Noire merely satisfied an «urge of animal and primitive regression», and we all have our demons to exorcise.
Neige's black metal history does somehow influence his shaping of Alcest — no wonder this style of music is sometimes called «blackgazing» — but there is nothing particularly ugly, vile, racist, or shock-oriented about that influence. The blackness, created by the distortion and feedback of the rhythm guitar, is only there to provide an important counterpoint for the «shoegazing» lead parts, which, on their part, are always set up in «melancholic beauty» mode. The sound is therefore reminiscent, at the same time, of such contemporaries as And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead (although those guys are far more noisy and «rock»-oriented) and Agalloch (although those guys always hunt for a doom-laden effect, which is not the purpose of Alcest).
But Neige has one more card up his sleeve — the vocal parts, usually handled by himself, but occasionally by Audrey Silvain, his partner in his third project, Amesoeurs. And this is where the Frenchness comes through: strip away the thick distorted guitars, replace the shoegazing drone with some light jazz muzak, and you will have yourself a sentimental / melancholic / atmospheric French intelli-pop record circa the mid-Seventies or so. The effect that this particular synthesis has on the feelings may not, in fact, probably will not be immediate, but eventually, it does let itself be known — the triple combination of «earthiness» (black distorted fire), «transcendence» (shoegazing trills and drones), and «lonesome beauty» (distant, echoey vocal parts that always seem to be coming from somewhere under the ground) makes for some tasty escapism.
Alcest's stated musical philosophy is that he does not create, but re-creates the sonic and visual images of a Fairy Land that he claims to have come in contact with in his childhood (and I do not necessarily disbelieve him — it all depends on what exact kinds of fairy tales he might have read instead of doing his sums and playing football in the yard). Naturally, the musical invention of another world is not his personal know-how — from Sgt. Pepper to Amon Düül II to Cocteau Twins and whoever else, people in pop music have been doing that ever since pop music became an art. But Neige makes an explicit point of it: the album title is literally translated from French as Memories Of Another World, and, if anything, it lets you know that this is not just some sort of unpredictable experiment, but that the man really knows what it is that he is doing.
That world of his is not particularly diverse. The music may get softer or louder, switch from acoustic to electric and back, shift between male and female vocals, or even show some mild Celtic influence in ʽTir Nan Ogʼ, but the mood on all the six tracks is essentially the same. The lead parts conjure sadness, the vocals conjure elfishness, and the rhythm compensates for the elfishness with earthy heaviness (although, contrary to some reviews, there is nothing truly dark, sinister, or threatening about any of these compositions). I do, however, wish that there were more of those pretty acoustic folksy interludes — the patterns that Neige plays are anything but complex, but each of these repetitive acoustic tapestries that he weaves is generally more memorable than the metal/shoegaze duets, which can get way too samey even with lowered expectations.
The repetitiveness itself is not a problem, though: the title track states that "d'où je viens le temps n'existe pas, les secondes deviennent des heures" ("where I come from time does not exist, seconds become hours"), and the whole point of the album, indeed, is to make you lose track of the time — including subtle variations on previously played themes that make you wonder if you have not accidentally pressed the rewind button. The key thing here is that if, for you, at least fifteen or twenty seconds of this album work fine, the whole album will work fine, since its primary purpose is to put you in a specific trance-like frame of mind. If you are well experienced, however, in the art of shoegazing, the trick may not work, and then you will probably be able to take no more than the aforementioned twenty seconds of it, in toto.
Of course, even being fond of Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde does not equal finding it a truly «magic» experience: Neige, to me, is less of a genius than a master craftsman, painstakingly learning his trade so as to be able to express his childhood dreams, much like a master pilot is diligently working on perfecting his skills so as to be able to do that fabulous loop he imagined himself doing when he was six years old. But as a first significant attempt at catching that dream, it is highly impressive — especially if you keep in mind that this is a one-man band project, with Neige himself responsible for most of the overdubs. Therefore, a certified thumbs up here, even if I cannot claim to have ever been to the same place as Neige in my own childhood. (For that matter, I'm more of an ʽI Am The Walrusʼ type of guy, myself...)
Check "Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde" (MP3) on Amazon