Alcest, Les Voyages de l’Âme: Marchons sur un Route d’Années

With their signature crushing emotional weight in tow, French post-black metal forerunners Alcest return in 2012 with their third album, Les Voyages de l’Âme. The eight-track record, the title of which translates to “the journeys of the soul,” keeps its focus musically on Alcest’s well-developed melodic wash, toying with blastbeats, screams and other black metal genre conventions in the interest of exploring the kind of head-down melancholy that brought such notoriety to past efforts Écailles de Lune (2010; half-review here) and Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde (2007) and placed Alcest multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Stéphane “Neige” Paut at the head of a melodic movement championed by the label Prophecy Productions and acts like Les Discrets, Arctic Plateau and Lantlôs, of which Paut is also a member. Along with drummer Winterhalter (also of Les Discrets), who joined in 2009, Paut has long since established the sonic course of Alcest as a band. Indeed, even on the two extended tracks of 2005’s Le Secret EP, it seemed a specific aesthetic was driving Neige’s songwriting, and that has remained true and consistent across the ensuing releases – in conjunction with a steady touring schedule, that consistency is part of what has allowed Alcest to attain the profile they have. At times, it has felt like that adherence to aesthetic has trumped the actual songwriting in the creative process – songs have been more about the mood they generate or add to – and where that might also be the case given the overall affect of Les Voyages de l’Âme, there’s no question that the third full-length has Alcest’s most directly memorable material to date.

As compares to the relatively jagged guitar sound of Écailles de Lune, Les Voyages de l’Âme seems to have more in common with Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde in terms of its production. Neige’s guitar, bass and keys come through clearly and smooth, and right away on opener “Autre Temps,” it’s apparent that Alcest had definite structural ideas going into this album. “Autre Temps” was chosen as the lead-off single/video cut, and rightly so with its balance of catchy wistfulness and gracefully unfolding melody. The vocals are prominent without being overbearing, and play a considerable role in making the chorus so ethereal. Guitars are layered in acoustics and electrics, and Winterhalter’s drumming maintains a metallic percussive edge without sounding out of place amid the song’s gradual build. As ever for Alcest, “Autre Temps” evokes a feeling of longing and a contemplative kind of classical sadness. “Là Où Naissent les Couleurs Nouvelles” follows and revives the black metal screams that “Percées De Lumière” from Écailles de Lune explored, in this context using them to complement the melody in the chorus and eventually take the fore. Winterhalter adds blasts, and were the guitars not so unabashedly gorgeous and the melody not still so prominent, “Là Où Naissent les Couleurs Nouvelles” would essentially be traditional black metal. It’s not, and the song’s later minutes emphasize a propulsive post-rock feel, capping the nine minutes with fading guitar that brings on the title-track’s headphone-worthy density. Squiggly guitars serve as a chorus amid more subdued, lower-register verse vocals, and the initial sway breaks after three minutes to embark on Les Voyages de l’Âme’s most effective musical and vocal build, on which both Neige and Winterhalter contribute to a vast, stirring sprawl. Side A wraps with the winding verses of “Nous Sommes l’Emeraude,” a fitting (if short addition) to Alcest’s worship of nature and the passage of time within it.

It’s mostly instrumental, but side B opener “Beings of Light” is also one of the most transcendent moments on the whole of Les Voyages de l’Âme. Driven forward by Winterhalter’s blasting, which kicks in following a wash of vocal melodies, the six minutes play out basically as a mood piece. Nonetheless, as a departure from the verse-based songwriting methodology around it, “Beings of Light” – its English title is inconsequential and if there are lyrics (I think there are), they’re indecipherable – works both to set up the second half of the album’s journeying feel and to distinguish itself from its surroundings and stand out on an individual level. The vocals are warbles – moaning, basically – and immediately contrasted by the screams and clean singing that balance out across “Faiseurs de Mondes.” Neige, whose screaming helped make the latest Lantlôs so powerful, isn’t fighting with himself here, but using both approaches to serve the interests of the song, which is the best-case scenario. “Faiseurs de Mondes” seems to rip through its first three minutes before an indulgent break leads to a subdued and acoustic-inclusive build that climaxes vocally first, then musically; sweet vocals counteracted by Winterhalter’s blast and pummel. The magic of Alcest is that these disparate elements work together, and “Faiseurs de Mondes” is a highlight in the band’s catalog because they do so well. “Havens” provides both time to digest the preceding track and an introduction to Les Voyages de l’Âme’s closer, “Summer’s Glory,” which echoes the latter minutes of “Là Où Naissent les Couleurs Nouvelles” in its post-rock-style pulsing, but sacrifices none of its melodic breadth. Because Alcest’s material is so lonely to start with, it’s easy to read a concluding feel into “Summer’s Glory” – as if the progressive theme of aging throughout the songs comes to a head with an appreciation for the fleeting nature of youth – but if that’s the case, then let it speak to how well the album’s final minutes serve the overall atmosphere created.

Perhaps for the first time ever in listening to an Alcest song, I’m also drawn specifically to the bass on “Summer’s Glory,” which veers ever so slightly from the path of the guitar. Neige commonly uses the bass to service the melodic wash – and well – but it actually stands out on Les Voyages de l’Âme’s finale, making both the beginning few minutes and the ending paean to melodicism that much richer. No surprise by now that the song’s strength is in its beauty; Alcest make something of an idol out of this kind of smoothness and immersive quality. It’s not until the song is over that the depth of the immersion is clear, both of the album as a whole and of “Summer’s Glory” in particular. Les Voyages de l’Âme seems to encompass you in its process, to wrap itself around you as you listen – again I’ll use the word “headphones” – and though that’s nothing new for Neige and Alcest, the degree to which the songs ingrain themselves on you while you listen is. More than anything the band has done before, the balance struck on Les Voyages de l’Âme of songcraft and ambience is essential to understanding what makes the record work. These tracks stand on their own as much as they stand together, and as Alcest increase their European and American touring presence, it’s hard to believe that’s not on purpose. They have their detractors among black metal traditionalists – a position that I, as someone with a passing-at-best interest in the genre, can respect if not hope to fully comprehend – but Alcest have earned their crossover appeal by legitimately breaking out of stylistic confines and forging something their own, and they continue to forge it on Les Voyages de l’Âme. If you’re not already won over by what they do, I don’t think your mind will change as a result of listening, but if you’ve yet to experience the band, the accessibility of this material makes it a great place to start.

Alcest’s website

Prophecy Productions

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