Friday, September 30, 2016

Alcest - Kodama

By Justin C. When I first heard a new Alcest album was coming, I was unreservedly excited. Of course, one of my first questions was how the new album would compare to Shelter. Would Alcest continue in a more pop direction, or steer back toward the blackgaze they pioneered?
By Justin C.

Artwork by Førtifem

When I first heard a new Alcest album was coming, I was unreservedly excited. Of course, one of my first questions was how the new album would compare to Shelter. Would Alcest continue in a more pop direction, or steer back toward the blackgaze they pioneered? Then I heard that the new album, Kodama, was Japanese inspired, and I had no idea what to think. Plenty of artists decide to dabble and/or delve into different cultures and music. Done thoughtfully, you get a sublime triumph like Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain. Done carelessly, you get Avril Lavigne's irredeemable piece of garbage, made up of bits and pieces of half-digested Japanese culture barfed up on top of what might have been a decent pop song if anyone had put any effort into it.

I was confident that Alcest would create something closer to Miles than Avril, but even after I first heard Kodama, I was a little mystified. I was pleased, as it’s a fantastic album, but still mystified. There's no mistaking the opening strains of the album for anything other than Alcest, with waves of guitar soaked in melody washing over you. But where was the Japanese influence? I'm no expert--I've played a few classical guitar works from Japanese composers--but I was pretty sure I recognized hints here and there of a Japanese musical sensibility, particularly in the title track. But beyond a few hints and the clearly anime-inspired cover, where was the influence?

Photo by Pedro Roque.

I try to avoid other press about an album before I review it, but I broke my own rule this time to learn more. Kim Kelly interviewed Neige and Winterhalter over at Noisey, and from that, the picture became a little clearer. The duo describe the album as being inspired as much, if not more, by the spirituality and culture of Japan than any particular musical style. Neige mentions an anime film in particular, Princess Mononoke, that deals with themes of environmentalism vs. human progress. The themes of that movie seem to fit well within the themes that Alcest has been about all along--a duality of sorts, feeling a pull between two places but not feeling exactly at home in either.

With a better understanding of that aspect, what about the relative softness or hardness of the album? Well, you don't have to get far into the album to find out. The second track, “Eclosion,” is another melodic gem, but the guitars start to get aggressive early on. There are also those fantastic clean vocals, sometimes with aching harmonies, that appear and then drift off over the horizon. But it turns out this is a build up to a long section of Neige's black metal rasps, mixed with anger, frustration, and sorrow. They play right over the beautiful melodies, and the combination gives me goosebumps. Therein lies Alcest's greatest strength--playing the harsh against the beautiful.

Photo by Pedro Roque.

You'll find even more of this musical-duality-mirroring-lyrical-duality throughout. "Je Suis D'Ailleurs," which translates to "I'm from Somewhere Else," continues with yearning clean vocals and the music gaining in ferocity. It's really part of a multi-song arc of building intensity, peaking with "Oiseaux de Proire" ("Birds of Prey"). The harsh vocals here are some of the most intense you'll hear from Neige, and the instrumental build toward the end of the song is to die for.

Does all this mean a "triumphant return to form," as some will say? I'd actually say no. As I explained in my previous love letter to Alcest, the band has stepped away and back toward the black metal aspect of their sound before, but the core of their musicality is always there. Kodama, while re-emphasizing some elements that weren't present on Shelter, pushes that core sensibility yet another step further in this band's fantastic catalog. No one's infallible, but I haven't seen any signs of fatigue in this band yet.


Tagged with 2016, Alcest, Justin C, Pedro Roque, post-metal, Prophecy Productions, shoegaze
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