From Black Metal to Dream Pop. That is a transition that Scott Walker could/would/may applaud. French outfit Alcest have made such a transition over the course of the last fourteen years and four full length albums.
Comprised of vocalist, guitarist, bassist, synth player Neige and drummer Winterhalter; Alcest helped to popularize the Black Metal Shoegaze sound in the last decade. Starting life as a much more aggressive, entity they have gradually left behind the more conventional metal sound and have drifted into what could almost verge on indie pop. Produced by Sigur Ros producer Birgir Jon Birgisson their latest album Shelter has stripped away all malice and created something that is as Nick Cave may put it a “rather lovely thing”. Comprising 8 tracks (9 if you pick up the 2 disc edition). Each track has an enveloping sound like waves crashing. Iʼm sorry for such a trite image but it really does make me think of the ocean. The tracks are for the chilled out, surf loving shoes gazers. The pleasant but epic guitar riffs will appeal to anyone who ever fell in love with Frank Zappaʼs ʻWatermelon In Easter Hay”.
Even Shelterʼs album cover speaks of a band with a different sound. Previous sleeves have featured dark, gloomy and outlandish images more typical of doom/black metal. Shelter boasts an almost uplifting image of two peopleʼs hands intwined against a raising sun. An image which to me says “hey buddy, everythingʼs gonna be okay”.
If you ever found My Bloody Valentine just that bit too morose or that Boris sometimes go far too off on a scream tangent but you think you may find something to this shoegazing business. Alcest are worth many hours of your time.
The Song – Deliverance
The last track on their most recent release Shelter. Beginning with a distant-sounding lone guitar, reminiscent to Metallicaʼs ʻUnforgivenʼ the track slowly starts to build moment with the arrival of Neigeʼs voice and Winterhalterʼs slow but relentless drums. Then the wonderful thing happens. Strings! Not matter what genre or sound of a song Iʼm a sucker for strings. The guitar continues to build as it sounds like Neige is playing about four at once before the song hits itʼs etherial peak. I do not know what is being said. I donʼt know if the song is supposed to be malevolent or welcoming. All I know is that Neigeʼs vocals ascend to a choir like level it takes me somewhere that I want to stay. Itʼs a place that can invoke tears of sadness or tears of joy. Itʼs three minutes of heavenly sounding music where vocals, percussion and rhythm are bended to create a mythic-like sound. As the song begins itʼs coda, I feel a sense of panic knowing that soon it will finish. Yes, I can just hit the repeat button and start the ten minute process all over again but I donʼt want to. I want to stay in itʼs hypnotic pull for many hours to come and come up for air when I feel like it. Itʼs music like this that makes me happy that I havenʼt completely destroyed my hearing yet through too many gigs. My, that got awfully deep for a while. Letʼs play some UB40 for a bit.
The Gig – Islington Assembly Hall
I have never been to Islington Assembly Hall before. Not for town business. Nor any other business. Itʼs the kind of venue that looks like itʼs staged itʼs fair share of am-dram productions, perhaps some planning committees? The main thing that initially stands out is how pristine the menʼs facilities are. This is a place I can do business with. Anyways. The main topic of that evening was to take in my first live viewing of Alcest, the band I had just recently fallen in love with.
Before them playing support were the extroadinary good Hexvessel. Fronted by Englishman, now Finland repping Mat McNerney, they managed to create something along the lines of the Wicker Man soundtrack fusing with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. A particular standout from the band was keyboard player Kimmo Helen who one moment stood tickling the ivories, the next he was tooting on a trumpet before discarding it and picking up the violin. Men of his talent are men I hate because I know that I cannot play one of those instruments one iota as well as he. The band play elongated of many of their tracks, including a menacing sounding ʻWoods to Conjureʼ but never once was I and I believe the rest of crowd clock watching. It was a support act worthy of a headliners spot.
The next ninety minutes are something of a blur. At least it really was for one audience member in front of me who collapsed straight on his back one song in. Weʼre talking plank like stiff. He was fine later but it was impressive.
As Alcest came on to stage and played for nearly one and half hours. I scarcely noticed the change in songs. I never looked around the room in boredom. I never once took my eyes off the stage. There was no “dynamite” stage show. No fire or lasers. Just four dudes with long hair and denim shorts making some of the most hypnotically, beautiful, stage- gazing music I ever heard. Sticking primarily to the sound of their latest album Shelter, the band worked their way through the record with some of the lighter, dream-pop inflected tracks from their back catalogue. Itʼs music that seems to speak to everyone in the room. A room that seems to be accommodating a lot of styles; thrash metal, heavy metal, indie, hip-hop, indistinguishables. Itʼs not too difficult to see this music being played at the BBC Proms. Why the hell not? It might get more reaction than some of the tired pieces plodded out every year. The songs sometimes ran to ten minutes at a time. But nobody cared. I certainly didn’t. Truth be told I rarely paid attention to what track they were playing. All consuming was the overall sense of “fuck me Iʼm so happy to be here right now” that I just completely zoned out. Something I very rarely do at gigs or public spaces. By their encore, which just happened to be Deliverance, I’m not ashamed to say I started to well up. I asked some of the party I was their with. Men not prone to dealing with these kind of emotions. Everyone admitted to having “a moment” at one point or another. Not a man jack of us walked away without agreeing that for better or worse we had probably just seen the gig of the year and it was only February 1st. Shit.