Overall Score: 8/10 Songwriting: 9/10 Performances: 8/10 Ingenuity: 7/10 Pros: Meticulously and painstakingly crafted | Transcendentally beautiful Cons: Doesn’t quite live up to previous works
Creating a genre, accidentally or otherwise, can be something of an albatross. It means as progenitor, the artist is inextricably linked to a certain sound, making it nigh on impossible to break out into the plethora of musical landscapes they may wish to experiment within. Black Sabbath, Meshuggah and The Dillinger Escape Plan are but three examples of genre innovators, and for the former two it became a noose around the neck of their freedom to wildly experiment. Meshuggah have done pretty much all they can do within their own confines and Sabbath barely evolved their sound beyond that which created all heaviness you hear before you. Dillinger, however, refused to play the game or bow to expectation and aptly for their rambunctious and ramshackle energy, moved through myriad sonic styles in their two and a bit decades as an outfit. Alcest, or more specifically frontman and mastermind, Neige, accidentally stumbled upon the alchemical formula for the Pitchfork readers’ subgenre du jour; blackgaze. With his long time friend, bandmate and confidante, Winterhalter in tow, the dual headed month that is Alcest continue to surprise with latest release, Spiritual Instinct.
Having released five albums of varying genres, yet consistent quality, it comes as something of a shock to find that Spiritual Instinct follows in the vein of the conventions of the genre that Alcest themselves pioneered. It feels as though everything that blackgaze has become through the work of Deafheaven, Møl etc. since the release of Alcest’s landmark EP, Le Secret, has had a profound influence on the French shoegazing post metallers. Fret not, the quality is still achingly beautiful, but the blackgaze template feels so constrictive to a band as adept at songwriting as this. From the notes of second song, Protection, there is a distinctly metallic edge that was absent on previous record and borderline masterpiece, Kodama, despite it being a return to their more conventional sound after the almost dream pop quality of Shelter. This is a far, far darker record than Alcest have achieved for some time and translates into viscerally heavy moments interwoven into the gazing guitars. Opener, Les Jardins De Minuit is a sprawling, organic entity that blossoms into existence from a shrieking guitar and breathy vocal into something altogether more intense. Neige’s vocals vary between the aforementioned celestially tranquil and screams of anguish, and this pretty much sets the template for the whole album.
Neige’s seemingly boundless confidence as a songwriter seems to have reached a plateau between Kodama and Spiritual Instinct. This is not to say that he is a spent force; far from it as the lustrous Sapphire will attest. The songwriting on this album is arguably equal to that of Kodama, but the album fails to live up to those heady heights as a whole simply due to the darkness inherent in it. The dark side of Neige’s psyche appears to be a pit of despair, but while it may be pitch black, the languid waters do not run so deep as the positivity he has been able to exude on former works. Again, this does not a bad album make; Spiritual Instinct is head and shoulders above many of its contemporaries – the glaring exceptions being the aforesaid Deafheaven and Møl – and is a cohesive piece of rich, emotionally dextrous craft. Both Neige and Winterhalter give sublime performances across the record, with special mention going to the vocal lines that cut through the din of the guitars with ease. It is certainly possible, and likely very probable that Neige will continue to grow as a penman and that Spiritual Instinct is a step sideways as opposed to a strident leap forward.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this album. It only suffers by grace of being an Alcest record. Were any other band to release this, it would be seen as potentially being their best work, but there is no band quite like Neige and Winterhalter. They remain a unique and captivating entity, however the only difference between now and the days of Kodama is that the playing field has been levelled. Deafheaven’s Sunbather and Ordinary Corrupt Human Love and Møl’s Jord stand on the shoulders of giants, and while Alcest may have a different style to these two, they are ostensibly playing the same game with Spiritual Instinct. So this is not a perfect blackgaze album, but it is a stunning piece of work, meticulously and painstakingly crafted by two immensely talented musicians. It just doesn’t quite live up to their grandeur.
The new Alcest album, Spiritual Instinct, is out October 25th via Nuclear Blast.