While Deafheaven popularized blackened shoegaze, France’s Alcest planted the stylistic seeds. Stéphane “Neige” Paut has spent the past two decades refining his amalgamation of palpable beauty and harrowing melancholy. His creative journey reached a crucial milestone with 2016’s immaculate opus Kodama, which suddenly put Alcest at the forefront of the scene it inadvertently founded.
Nuclear Blast Records took notice. As a followup to a landmark album, Spiritual Instinct has a lot to live up to. It recalls its predecessor at many points, but it does exactly what it should as a debut within the larger metal community.
The shadow of Kodama looms over Spiritual Instinct, but that’s hardly a bad thing. Recorded with the same producer in the same studio, the album’s production is just as incredible. Opener “Les Jardins De Minuit” uses Jean “Winterhalter” Deflandre’s indomitable drum tone and Niege’s transcendent vocals and guitar playing to a terrific effect. The song centers on two main motifs; triumphant singing and pained strums over a ripping blast beat and a noticeably more metallic groove. Alcest still prides itself on contrasting dreamlike beauty with surging intensity, but that tremolo riff’s thicker tone has more appeal to the Nuclear Blast crowd.
Though more immediate and hard-hitting than ever, Alcest doesn’t sacrifice its penchant for atmosphere. Single “Protection” incorporates that increased impact into the gorgeous sonics on which the band has built its reputation. Its syncopated riffing brings unprecedented aggression, which complements Neige’s angelic singing. His soaring vocal melodies blend with his guitar lines, keeping the album deeply mystical and heartrendingly emotional. Whether he sings in French or dispenses with words entirely, his sorrowful cries and soothing singing flesh out the inner world this music represents to its creator.
Neige functions more like a traditional lead singer on “Sapphire,” molding the song into a beefier take on dream-pop. Within a less-is-more chord progression and a rock-solid half-time beat, his melodic intuition takes the spotlight. Much like Sigur Rós, meaning emanates from the potent feelings he generates. Neige’s arrangements flicker like the inner fire he yearns for and strives to preserve. In this way, Spiritual Instinct maintains its inception as an extension of Neige. Its personal touch is not diminished by the fact it’s easier to head-bang to the songs.
From a foundation of muted synth, “L’Ile Des Morts” provides a compelling contrast between proggy time signatures and singalong melodies. The song’s changes are as natural as they are cathartic, bringing tumbling blast beats, massive crescendos and exhilarating riff changes into an emphatic statement. The same could be said about how the rumbling bass of “Le Miroir” gives way to a wistful guitar lick and celestial synth patches. More of an ambient piece, the song’s monolithic build ups are no less engrossing. Beyond tantalizing with effects and volume, Neige thoughtfully elaborates on his ideas. At once sad and euphoric, Spiritual Instinct becomes a vibrantly colorful tapestry of emotion.
Clocking in at 41 minutes with only six tracks, this album I made for getting lost in the music. The title track, which closes the album, seems to come too soon until you realize how much you experienced beforehand. Neige layers his voice for some impeccable harmonies as ethereal chords and echoing tom-toms explode with grandeur. The song’s accessible chords and relatively standard arrangement still overflow with purifying bliss. Neige guides his music with undeniable passion, but always serves an immersive mood.
Spiritual Instinct makes perfect sense for this season in Alcest’s career. The album will prove much more palatable for metal-heads, while maintaining cross-pollination with shoegaze and post-rock. More than eye-catching genre combinations, Neige values his songs as a reflection of his soul-searching. Whether he retreads some ground or enters choppier watters, Alcest remains unmatched in its power.