Shelter, the fourth album by Parisian post-black metal outfit Alcest, is a project of discovery. The narrative (blessings and peace upon it) has it that the band — comprised in its studio incarnation of guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, vocalist and principal songwriter Stéphane “Neige” Paut and drummer Jean “Winterhalter” Deflandre — grew tired of the aesthetic that, arguably, reached its peak with their third album, Les Voyages de l’Âme (review here), and that in recording, the sense was that they were playing to what was expected of them. Performance over passion. There are many acts who go for a long time playing to formula, and as one whose debut, 2007’s Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde, is considered a founding document of the style of post-black metal, Alcest would be well within their rights to do just that. But an essential part of what has made Alcest such a special entity over the course of the last seven years has been the creative drive of Neige in crafting the material, and that’s never stopped. The second outing, 2010’s Écailles de Lune (semi-review here), was an outgrowth of the first and the third and outgrowth of the second, so when it comes to Alcest hitting that moment in any creative process where the sense is that one has pushed an idea as far as it can go, going into Shelter — which is released through Prophecy Productions — they either could have rehashed ideas or completely shifted their approach. They’ve obviously chosen the latter. Recorded at Sundlaugin Studio in Iceland with producer Birgir Jón Birgisson (Sigur Rós) at the helm, the eight tracks/46 minutes of Shelter are aiming for something else entirely in their sound, and something that has very little to do with metal, blackened or otherwise.
There will be some, I suppose, who will find themselves alienated by the lack of the occasional screaming payoff or squibbly guitar/blastbeat section, and it’s true that the dynamic between Alcest‘s nostalgic wash of melody and that darker sonic touch was a huge part of what makes their work to date so pivotal, but really, was anyone listening to Alcest just because they were heavy? It’s not like they were ever trying to be the loudest band in the world. Their sound, even in its most blistering moments, always tapped into a sentimental, wistful emotionality — aggression has never been their trade — so even though early cuts like “Opale” and “La Nuit Marche avec Moi” present a somewhat different sonic palette, Alcest are less entirely recreating themselves than dropping what felt to them like dead tonal weight. Accordingly, Shelter soars, and from the cascading echoes of the introductory “Wings,” that seems to be the very idea. “Opale” takes off at a joyous run, and neither Neige nor Winterhalter look back from then. Wisps of lead guitar drive forward and the waves of melody are intact, but there’s no darkness to “Opale,” and in that, it both immediately works against what one might expect going into Shelter who thought they were getting a direct follow-up to Les Voyages de l’Âme and sets the tone of for the rest of the tracks to come, which by and large are shorter as well, with half of the album hovering on either side of the five-minute mark while “Wings” is shorter, “Voix Sereines” and “L’Eveil des Muses” are longer and the album rounds out with the 10-minute highlight “Délivrance,” which is as encompassing as anything residing in Alcest‘s back catalog. “Voix Sereines” follows the slightly moodier “La Nuit Marche avec Moi,” which opens gorgeously to half-time drums and echoing guitar runs, with Shelter‘s most wistful moment yet, building from surprisingly minimal quiet to a memorable instrumental progression that’s as patient as it is affecting, capping in a wash not tonally weighted bu emotionally resonant enough to justify the linearity that brought it about, effects, distortion and Winterhalter‘s punctuating snare retreating at the end to let a trail of echoing vocal and synth lead into “L’Eveil des Muses.”
Even without an explicit, get-up-and-flip-the-platter side break, “L’Eveil des Muses” changes the mood. A tense bassline underscores intertwining layers of guitar, the kick drum soon joins and a darker verse takes hold. The path is somewhat less distinct than in “Voix Sereines,” but there is a build happening in “L’Eveil des Muses” as well, though rather than peak in the same fashion as the preceding cut, it plateaus out and sustains its course, moody and meditative. At 6:49, it’s the longest track on Shelter save for the finale, and may or may not mark a guest appearance by the string section of Icelandic band Amiina. It’s hard to tell with the layers of guitar, bass, synth, etc. but string sounds permeate either way, and as a precursor to the title-track’s return to the unfettered joys of the album’s earliest going, they work well in underscoring the contemplation at hand. To compare, “Shelter” is relatively straightforward in its construction, but emphasizes much of what works best about Shelter overall and about this latest stage of Alcest‘s evolution — namely the band’s ability to hold firm to the bright-toned sentimentality in their sound even as they branch out musically. In another context, “Shelter” might even be psychedelic, with the swirl that emerges in the second half of the track, but ultimately its clean, vibrant tone stands out more as exploring another time rather than another place. The stated underlying theme of Shelter is the sea, and as with the other pieces here, the title-track evokes a watery shimmer in the undulating motion of waves. It is unfettered in its gorgeousness. This makes “Away” an even more distinct turn, with guest vocals from Slowdive‘s Neil Halstead. Quiet, with a string arrangement behind him, it’s a showcase for Halstead‘s peaceful voice at the start and immediately notable for its English lyrics. Drums enter for the first chorus and reemerge for the second verse, and there’s a swell of guitar accordingly, acoustic strum melding smoothly with electric ambience and distinct but soft lead lines. Its last chorus is almost painfully beautiful, ending with the strings and guitars slowly fading, giving way to the quiet beginnings of “Délivrance”‘s hypnotic course.
In a way, it’s ironic that Alcest would call this album Shelter, since they’re doing the exact opposite of “playing it safe,” which they could easily have done in retreading the style of their first three full-lengths — by shedding most of the metallic elements in their sound, they’re more exposed than they’ve ever been. Still, “Délivrance” embarks on a ground-up linear build that winds up the pinnacle achievement of Shelter. It is fragile and patient, but immersive all the way through and grand in a way Alcest have at times seemed to work directly against being in the past. Guest vocals from Promise and the Monster‘s Billie Lindahl add to the texture, and though it crescendos with a formidable largesse, it never feels overblown, and the last several minutes are devoted to exploring the melody in Lindahl‘s vocals and the synth (strings?), providing an ending to Shelter that bookends the beginning wash of “Wings.” By then, it’s been a substantial journey from one end of the tracklist to the other, but Alcest have managed cohesion throughout their foray outside the comfort zone — though for all that, they seem both comfortable and content in this material, its intricacy perhaps familiar to the listener who has experience with the band but set to a new context. That context is precise, but natural and as ever for the duo, it unfolds with a tapestry’s brilliance to provoke a range of emotional associations, some longing, some ecstatic. The sonic changes, in that sense, are something of a formality, and while there’s no question that Neige‘s focus and as a result the band’s focus has moved, perhaps the narrative shouldn’t just be about that turn, but about how much Alcest have remained Alcest through it.