ALCEST: KODAMA (2016)
1) Kodama; 2) Eclosion; 3) Je Suis D'Ailleurs; 4) Untouched; 5) Oiseaux De Proie; 6) Onyx; 7) Notre Sang Et Nos Pensées*.
Kodama means ʽtree-spiritʼ in Japanese, with the concept going back to prehistoric times, but it does not take a Japanologist to understand that Neige learned about it not from reading Japanese folklore, but rather from watching Princess Mononoke, since 99% of people get their 99% of information on traditional Japanese culture from Miyazaki-san. That's OK, though, it's not like Alcest have switched to playing traditional Japanese music or anything — in fact, we could all probably see it coming: sooner or later, any blackgazer is going to have to confess that he was inspired and influenced by Japanese mixes of beauty and horror anyway, because blackgaze is all about mixing beauty with horror, and who does that better than the Japanese — Ivanka Trump?..
Anyway, I was quick enough in my review of Shelter to suggest that Alcest's genuinely blackgazing days are over — here, as if shaking off one type of slumber to immediately jump into another, Neige makes a focused effort to return to his «roots», and make another album straight in the vein of his first two. The downside is that you may have to go back to the first two in order to check if there's any significant differences, and even I am a little lazy to do that. The upside is that a shift of mood/vibe is almost always a good thing anyway for somebody who works in the «static» section of the musical business, and there does seem to be a little extra spark in Kodama that you sometimes observe in those types of comebacks that are not made exclusively for the money. Yet it is all subtle and subjective — and on the rougher side of the equation, what you have here is simply six more (seven more, if you count the extra track on the deluxe edition) cold, dark, snowy, statically beautiful sonic panoramas from the French master of texture.
Once again, as the title track kicks into gear, we find ourselves treading through heavy, but soft and un-treacherous snow, covering a dense (but not too dense) forest of pine trees on a moonlit (but not too moonlit) night — without any idea of why we are here, where are we going, and whether the forest has an end or the journey has a purpose. We do know that the forest is enchanted, as the kodamas are sending us haunted signals with their haunted vocals, ringing in unison with the jangly and the distorted guitars, but it's not like they really care about you — you're nothing but an impartial observer, and even when the distorted guitars take over for a while and start a power chord bombarding, there is still no impression that something is, you know, happening. Maybe just a stronger wind.
There's four additional tracks on here, but the vibe on each and every one of them is exactly the same — occasionally, you get some growling vocals (ʽEclosionʼ), for old times' sake, but they are neither scary nor apocalyptic. (Maybe one of the kodamas just got thirsty.) Only the last track, ʽOnyxʼ, is different, and not necessarily for the better — it's just one long drone, recorded in lo-fi for the sake of amusement and working as a «one last breath» outro that you will probably want to skip even if you happen to be sufficiently enchanted by the rest of them.
Honestly, I am not quite sure what to do here, but in the end, I will probably have to leave it with a modest thumbs up, because (a) I really like the vocal melodic hook on ʽKodamaʼ (closest the album gets to being genuinely haunting), (b) I think that the album shows some progress in the art of working with overdubs (Souvenirs sounds a little crude and un-subtle in comparison), (c) I've always had a soft spot for French impressionist artists influenced by Japanese culture — so, roll over Pissarro, tell Debussy the news, or something to that effect. None of which will probably ward off the inevitable — that in a few months (weeks) Kodama will be robustly wiped out of my memory, and then Neige can start it all over again without any serious risk of being accused of self-plagiarism in the future.