The first few weeks of the new year see the release of an album that was controversial before it was even recorded: Alcest’s Shelter. Many months ago, Alcest’s songwriter and band leader, Neige, said that Alcest’s next work would not be a metal album. This, of course, inflamed the opinions of many, as it seems to when any established metal band announces a shift in direction (see reactions to Opeth’s Heritage, for instance). I must admit that, though I wasn’t surprised, at the time I was slightly disappointed by the revelation as Alcest’s combination of shoegaze with the heavier elements taken from black metal were what the band was known for. Indeed, they are credited with turning that combination of sounds, for better of worse, into a genre of its own.
We seem to live in a time where experimentation in music isn’t as welcome as it used to be. Fans of metal music in particular seem to be have the most vitriolic, knee-jerk reactions if something intrudes on their pre-conceived tastes. In the past, my favorite Alcest tracks all involved some kind of metal element, be they Winterhalter’s steady blast beats or Neige’s cavernous shrieks, but the drums on Shelter never speed up past mid-tempo rock beats and Neige’s voice never breaks from his somber intonations. However, if the listener has an open mind when approaching this album, these changes make little difference. The core of what makes Alcest recognizable is still clear and present.
Shelter was recorded in Iceland (by Birgir Jón Birgisson at Sigur Rós’ studio). The surroundings must have had a strong effect on the band as the legendary beauty of the country is clearly audible in the music. The production is spacious and reverb-heavy, though still crisp, creating a lush and deep sound that could be imagined rolling out across the fjords or through epic deserts of volcanic rock. Neige’s guitar work has never been totally riff-based, but Shelter sees his playing at its most experimental. The guitars are often treated more as a string section, tremolo picked and thick with delay to create the kind of sound pioneered by post-rock bands of the 90s, which gives the album a swirling and immersive sound.
“Wings” is a short instrumental that serves to set up themes that are repeated in the first proper song of the album, “Opale”. “Opale” is as positive a song as Alcest has ever written, and to open an album with such energy was a gutsy move. In the past, Alcest has been known more for their melancholic songs, so to begin Shelter with such a creation signals the intention of this album to be something very different than the mysterious darkness of Écailles de Lune or the nostalgic longing of “Autre Temps” on Les Voyage de L’âme. “Opale” is more of a song for the turn of Spring to Summer, a joyful and bountiful time where one can run through the fields without a care.
That said, the album isn’t without its brooding melancholy. The best songs on Shelter still carry the darkly mysterious sound of Alcest’s past. The slow buildup and vocal release of “Voix Sereines” lives up to the name of the track (translated to English as “Serene Voice”). The song begins with strums of guitar and an airy synth before lead melodies are established that take the song forward and recur throughout. When “Voix Sereines” reaches its climax, Neige holds a long sung note as the guitars turn from reverb soaked single notes to power chords, struck with sublime power and distortion, demonstrating that while the electric power of earlier releases is not gone, it may have changed form.
Neil Halstead of Slowdive makes a guest appearance on the song “Away”. The song itself is a fairly standard pop structure, but Halstead’s contribution elevates its impact. His vocal harmonies with Neige add a dynamic that makes it a unique song amongst Alcest’s discography, along with it being the band’s first use of English lyrics. Also lending her voice is Billie Lindahl (Promise and the Monster), though her contributions are not as obvious as Halstead’s. Her singing is used as a backing harmony on several songs but never comes forth on its own, instead providing a welcome accompaniment to Neige’s singing.
“Deliverance” closes the album and is easily the strongest closing track Alcest has ever composed; frankly, it is in the running for their best piece ever. The guitars shimmer and encircle, the singing soars above and strings are added, elevating the song into a crescendo that seems to wrap the listener in a blanket of sound. The song fades with a gentle coda of strings and voice, carrying the listener slowly back to Earth, allowing time to process the incredible swell of tension and ease Shelter to its finish.
The major criticism of this album is that it has a few songs that, by Alcest’s standard, fall into the mediocre range. However, these few tendencies are balanced by moments of pure bliss and escape. In a way, the less dynamic tracks act as an emotional easing-off between the more intense songs, and fortunately they don’t pad the time of the album. Alcest have never overstayed their welcome on past records, and Shelter is no different, being, in my opinion, perfect LP length at 46 minutes.
Admittedly the album is a slow builder, but, as in life, patience yields rewards. Neige has spoken at length about this album’s connection to the sea; it is a place that he thinks of as a shelter. While the oceanic themes are not pushed to be too explicit, the listener can easily hear the influence in the songwriting, with tracks rising and falling like waves and tides. Shelter is an album that, with the right mindset and environment — and both are key — will ease and calm the mind, allowing it to roam and be swept up in the sound. The music is indeed a kind of immersive shelter of its own.
03) La Nuit Marche Avec moi
04) Voix Sereines
05) L’éveil des Muses