Spiritual Instinct

Written by: AP on 03/03/2020 15:09:40

Alarm bells were ringing when Alcest announced their signing with Nuclear Blast in 2018. At the risk of sounding like a sanctimonious hipster, whenever bigger record labels pay notice to artists who, in spite of having kept the mainstream at an arm’s length, experience a surge in their popularity, it has an unfortunate tendency to lead to a gradual unraveling of precisely the things that made them so interesting in the first place. This pioneering Parisian duo have been critical darlings for a long time now, culminating in the transcendental “Kodama” in 2016, but one fears the days of their leading the blackgaze tribe may be coming to an end now the transition from underground to established artist is complete and the result, Alcest’s sixth studio album “Spiritual Instinct”, is out.

There is a breath of relief at first, with the opening track “Les Jardins de minuit” delivering a reminder of Alcest’s unique style, in which the ethereal and the gnarly exist both in juxtaposition to and harmony with each other. The drums beat in a ritual rhythm as frontman Stéphane ‘Neige’ Paul combines guitar and chants to bind us into his spell with one of the band’s famously dreamy melodies; then, a moment for Jean ‘Winterhalter’ Deflandre’s blastbeats to reign, before an evocative tremolo lead eventually takes over and makes the imprint on your memory needed to render this song unforgettable in vintage Alcest style. But while “Les Jardins de minuit” certainly is a standout piece, it also houses omens of a new path for the band, with the streamlined production and heavy usage of chord-based riffs drawing a stark contrast to past material, when classic black metal still formed a strong current in their sound. This new course is even more apparent in the subsequent “Protection” and “Sapphire”, both of which are centred around post-rock grooves that you would not put past the likes of Pelican or Russian Circles and only intermittently expose the harsher aspect of Neige’s vocal abilities. His esoteric siren chants and soft singing voice have always played a crucial role in defining Alcest’s audio signature, bestowing the duo’s music with a mystical atmosphere and arousing in the listener a sensation reminiscent of ASMR. But on this new album, this technique is used in excess, with virtually every cascade of melody flowing from Neige’s guitar and synths accompanied by ahh’s and ohh’s that are so tender and airy that they are not only hard to make out, but also have the band teetering on the verge of melodrama.

In spite of bending the norms of black metal on their previous albums, Alcest have thus far skilfully avoided sounding like pretending elitists, but it is difficult to deny there is a touch of pompousness about this latest offering. “Le miroir” is the lead offender in this regard, inviting the pseudo-intellectuals among us to rub their chins in feigned understanding as Neige and Winterhalter meander around a Myrkur-esque, ambient neofolk soundscape far too long without a sense of purpose. The good news is that irrespective of the various missteps, Alcest have not lost their penchant for taking one’s breath away, as “L’ile des morts” and the titular finale “Spiritual Instinct” both testify to. The former is likely to win favour with the old school of Alcest’s fanbase, letting a cathartic deluge of melody sweep over and envelop us with a totality only rivalled by Wolves in the Throne Room, while the latter derives its might from a massive, resplendent crescendo in which all of the band’s instruments are fused into a wall of sound that is as life-affirming and uplifting as it is noisy.

As an album then, “Spiritual Instinct” may not pertain to the standard set by Alcest’s past endeavours, but even so, it should stoke the envy of other blackgaze hopefuls. The lighter and loftier style of many of these songs compared to those records would have been enough to leave me feeling ambivalent about the album, but it is the cookie cutter mix that delivers the real poison to feed my disappointment, by eliminating the organic, human sound I have come to associate with Alcest over the years. If I am honest, it bears the mark of a band still trying to find their footing in the new world that is metal for the masses — a stepping stone, if you like. That is not to say that “Spiritual Instinct” should be avoided or overlooked by any measure, for there are plenty of standout moments scattered amongst the points of frustration that deserve the affection of fans and curious newcomers alike.


Download: Les Jardins de minuit, L’ile des morts, Spiritual Instinct
For the fans of: Agalloch, Lantlôs, Les Discrets, Myrkur
Listen: Facebook

Release date 25.10.2019
Nuclear Blast

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