For future reference, here is the summary of every Alcest review I will ever write; ‘It’s fantastic, but it’s not as good as Écailles de Lune’. Got that? Great, so, accordingly, Shelter is a fantastic album, but it’s not as good as Écailles de Lune. Feel free to return to whatever it is you were previously doing on the internet; masturbating, presumably.
First thing to note is that was produced by Birgir J….something-something Sigur Rós. Basically, all you need to know is that it was recorded at their own studio (Sundlaugin, for those into their facts) by the producer who has done a lot of the engineer/mixing work for Sigur Rós, and that it is immediately apparent. Because if Alcest were missing anything, it was the whole dreamy, ethereal vibe Sigur Rós are known for. Oh wait, scratch that, Alcest already had that going for them. So while it is a nice marriage, it’s hardly bold or pushing a brave new frontier, though it does signal a move away from any sort of soft-heavy dynamic present on earlier releases.
So what we have, essentially, is a dreamy, light, sun-bathed album that is probably the album that Les Voyages de l’Âme wanted to be; it is definitely better than Les Voyages…, an album I really wanted to love, but eventually settled for just liking. It definitely has the gorgeous melodies, Neige’s spacey vocals, and the post-rock guitars. So if that’s all you were looking for, huzzah, jackpot! It’s the sort of album that, played on a warm summer’s day surrounded by greenery and the hazy activity of bees, would make for a fond memory to look back on whilst the winter month’s force you to settle for the darker melodies of bands like Swallow The Sun (or maybe that’s just me?). It’s a definite summer-nostalgia album. But that’s all it is, to be honest. It’s not a standout effort, and it doesn’t have that other-worldly vibe of earlier works that take you somewhere other than your back garden, or the local park.
So here’s why Alcest will always have a fond place in my musical memory. When Écailles de Lune came out, I’d never really heard anything like it. Sure, there were other bands out there that did the whole post rock thing, and if you wanted the shoe-gazey black metal stuff, you wouldn’t have to look too hard (though admittedly, even now, there aren’t that many great bands to choose from). But this was something different. The album cover was gorgeous, any by god did it fit the sound perfectly. Neige said in interviews that Alcest was of his early experiences of an ‘otherworld’, or fairy land. Childhood mental breakdown aside, that album owned that concept. The album sounded like someone had condensed the world of Hero (Ridley Scott does somewhat-generic fantasy; hell, I love it) into pure sound. Yes, it had black metal screams, but they worked magnificently within the context of the album. They helped pull you through this weird, emotional landscape and I will be damned if many other bands even glimpse at the emotional investment that album can produce. So anyway, one warm and starry, summer night in York, I somehow stumbled onto the fact that that night was going to be the scene of a rather spectacular meteor shower. Being the fantastically artsy person that I am, I thought the best way to experience this would be to lay a deck chair flat out, pipe Écailles de Lune into my ears, and watch the stars play out their drama. Now, I’m the sort of person whom Hollywood characterises in horror films as the jerk that arrogantly laughs at the protagonist, mocking them as an utter loon when they try to warn everyone of the impending supernatural danger. You know the guy who works for the mayor in Ghostbusters 2 who gets the Ghostbusters sectioned? That’s me. So, for me, that experience of sitting under the stars listening to songs like ‘Sur l’océan couleur de fer’, whilst debris from outer space burnt up in our atmosphere in front of my eyes, is probably the closest I’ll ever come to a ‘religious experience’. If I’d have listened to ‘Shelter’ instead, that memory wouldn’t even be half as vivid.
So yes, Shelter is a great album; it’s bright, beautiful, and highlights like ‘Délivrance’ prove just how perfectly Neige can nail melodies. But with the loss of the black metal influence (and by ‘black metal’, I mean ‘Wolves In The Throne Room’ type affair, not the ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ sort of stuff), Alcest have lost something special, and this direction that they’re heading in risks turning them into just another dreamy pop-rock band, which I personally think will be a travesty, even if it almost certainly wins them a more mainstream fanbase.
-Judged on its own merits, it’s a great album that shows direction (even if it’s predictable and, in my opinion, the wrong way) and focus, but in the context of the back catalogue, I can’t help but feel disappointed.