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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Alcest: Shelter

ALCEST: SHELTER (2014)

1) Wings; 2) Opale; 3) La Nuit Marche Avec Moi; 4) Voix Sereine; 5) L'Eveil Des Muses; 6) Shelter; 7) Away; 8) Délivrance.

And now we finally know the truth: Neige's preoccupation with «black metal» was really but an accident, a result of an unlucky psychic derailment. It took the guy about ten years to sort that out, but he did manage to reconnect with his own true self at last: Shelter erases the last, already bare­ly visible traces of heavy music from Alcest's palette, and replaces them with heavenly lushness, as Neige and Winterhalter place themselves in the self-assured hands of Birgir Jón Birgisson, the producer of Sigur Rós — who, in his turn, teams them up with Amiina, the Icelandic chamber music / electronic ensemble, well known for working together with Sigur Rós on quite a few oc­casions. Well, if you think about it, it was probably bound to happen, sooner or later.

The decision was clearly a gamble, and it is not yet clear how much it cost Neige in terms of mass quantities of admiration — so far, I have read many an old fan's grumble on how the band lost its unique identity by sacrificing the «black» in favor of the «lush». Now, they say, all we have is an inferior, unnecessary, pale shadow of Sigur Rós, technically pretty, but boring and devoid of its own vision. Trying to progress and develop is all very fine, they say, but not at the expense of dissolving yourself in the ocean of imitation. This point of view is totally acceptable if you really thought that Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde was some sort of groundbreaking achievement, a fabulous milestone in the development of «blackgaze»; but if you just thought, «hmm, nice dark droning music, whatever», then it is not excluded that Shelter will please you more.

In any case, complaints of «selling out» are entirely missing the point, because, composition-wise, Shelter is as much a proper brainchild of Neige as everything else. Shimmery, jangly guitars in­stead of thick distorted tones and clean, pretty-melancholic vocals instead of deathly growling are simply a different kind of coating, and it's not even as if they weren't already in Neige's inventory from the very beginning, either. As for the strings of Amiina, they are mostly relegated to the background for ambience, so, in the end, it all still sounds more like old-school Alcest than clas­sic Sigur Rós, with Neige's guitar playing at the center of everything.

So let us just ask ourselves two consecutive questions, the only ones, in my opinion, that make sense in the context of an album like Shelter: (a) does Shelter work as enjoyable, tasteful back­ground music? and (b) does Shelter contain any moments or periods of «heavenly beauty» that would rise it above the status of background music?

The first question I answer in the positive, and, in fact, with the jarring «black» moments out of the picture, Shelter is unquestionably the finest «background muzak» album to come from Alcest so far. Some of the songs feature subtle dynamic build-ups (most notably the huge ten-minute grand-finale track), but they are so subtle indeed that they probably won't be able to rip you out of the process of doing whatever you're doing while listening to it. On the other hand, the general mix of the thing, where the guitars usually sound like they are lightly wobbling in space, the strings hover behind them like perfectly normal particle vibrations, and Neige is trying to mes­merize you with the latest in French lullaby craft, is a perfect soundtrack for doing something... like, oh I dunno, writing this here review, for instance.

The second question is trickier. It does not seem to me as if Neige were stringing together chords that weren't already well explored previously — but there are some individual moments that are sufficiently simple, yet at the same time quite deep-reaching. I am speaking particularly of the second half of ʽVoix Sereineʼ (a series of three-chord "nah nah nah"'s that gradually blossoms into an ecstatic merry-go-round); of the delay/echo effect on the guitar strings in ʽL'Eveil Des Musesʼ, which does evoke a bit of a «muse-centered» feeling; and the huge finale of ʽDelivranceʼ, whose build-up is sufficiently grand to stir up the soul... I think.

Still, «I think» is not quite the same as «I am sure». In reality, my feelings are quite torn between realizing that this is indeed the kind of music that Neige must be hearing in his heart even when sleeping — and then realizing that most of its effectiveness comes from clever exploitation of modern recording and mixing technology. And a song like ʽDélivranceʼ, with its ten minutes of powerful building-up and meticulous winding down, lays claim to overwhelming your emotions and flooding your senses (otherwise, it would have no reason to exist), but is there any actual ma­gic to that overwhelming, or is this just a guaranteed-to-work recipé that could be generated by a computer, with just a few parameters fed in? I really have no idea, and this shadow of doubt that refuses to go away prevents me from properly falling under the spell of Shelter, and once you have refused to fall under that spell, you can really only use it as background muzak.

But it's good enough to at least deserve an honest thumbs up — sufficiently different from Neige's previous work to warrant an autonomous listen, never ugly or, in fact, anything less than «pretty», and it makes you want to ask unanswerable questions, so I guess we should count that as a success story, and the idea to bring in the Sigur Rós people was relatively fruitful. Coming up: an equally productive collaboration with Godspeed You! Black Emperor? The modern world of music may be running out of creative steam for all we know, but at least the combinatory potential is on a constant rise.

Check "Shelter" (CD) on Amazon

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