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Monday, January 20, 2014
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On Shelter, Alcest for the first time drops all connections with its Black Metal origins, and concentrates purely on the Atmospheric Shoegaze part of its music! You see, when singer/ multi-instrumentalist Neige started Alcest in 2000 as a solo project in Bagnols-sur-Cèze (southern France, more precisely the Languedoc-Rousillon area – Neige later relocating to Paris), he'd envisioned it as an outlet to create a cold and raw Black Metal. Having already spent time in Peste Noire (in its beginning years, and both as drummer and rhythm guitarist), the solo project soon became a trio with the addition of bassist Argoth and Aegnor (now known as La sale Famine de Valfunde) on lead guitar, and went on to release (through Drakkar Productions) its first 4-track demo tape Tristesse Hivernalle in 2001. Oh right...among the other projects/ bands in which Neige has been active in the past (at present), one can find Amesoeurs, Mortifera, Valfunde, Les Discrets, Celestia (th latter two only as live musician), Pleasure Of Mordor, Lantlös, Dor Daedeloth, Zero, Phest, Old Silver Key. He would at present still be part of the bands Forgotten Woods, Glaciation, and play live with other words, a very experienced musician, indeed!

However, (getting back to Alcest) the project then reverted to a solo outing again, and this marked a first change in musical direction and concept (citation from Wikipedia, whence most of the info used in this review was culled: “As a child, Neige had experiences of being in contact with a “far off country”, which he generally refers to as “Fairy Land”. Alcest serves as the musical adaptation of the memories from this “otherworld”. Neige intends for Alcest to be a journey for the listener to this world through his memories)", a first taste of which was given with the 2-track EP Le Secret, released in May 2005 (again by Drakkar). Musically still a mixture of Shoegazer with Black Metal (the latter part would fade out in consequent releases in favour for other Metal and Rock elements), and was apparently misinterpreted by critics as a cold and melancholic Black Metal release, Neige's vocal rendition as creating a “sinister mood”. An interpretation which came as a surprise to the artist, as he'd meant the thing to be uplifting in stead.

In March 2007 Neige signed to Prophecy Records, with as first result the full-length Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde (review by colleague Ivan posted 24/07/2007 can still be found in the “Archive” part of this here website), issued that same year in August. Ivan compared it to a” French version of Ulver, or a new David Lynch soundtrack”, while other reviewers compared this new Alcest release to My Bloody Valentine and Jesu. A mere week later also saw a re-issue of the Tristesse Hivernale demo, as part of a split release (through Northern Silence Productions) with French Black Metal act Angmar. Neige then apparently fell in a rather busy part of his life, probably also making his move to Paris, because it wouldn't be before 2009 before Alcest came along with new material, displayed on a split release (issued through Prophecy) with Les Discrets. The split release would bring a first change for Alcest, as in 2009 Winterhalter [formerly of Peste Noire, Les Discrets, Amesoeurs (bands in which Neige had also served, remember?) and Hexenauge, and currently also a member of Glaciation (alongside Neige again), Bahrrecht and Phobos] joined the project as its permanent drummer.

A new Alcest full-length album entitled Écailles de Lune then arrived in March 2010, and would instigate new changes, as session members Zero (guitar & backing vocals; also a live musician of les Discrets, and member of his own band Zero), and Indria (bass; actually a swift replacement for Fursy Teyssier; Indria was formerly with Peste Noire and Brutal Rebirth, now still with Triste Sir) would be hired to bring Alcest music in live conditions. From then on, and in spite of the two protagonists of the band still being active in other projects/ bands, Alcest business came into a steady schedule, which found Prophecy issuing a re-recorded version of Le Secret in May 2011 to tie over the fans' waiting time for the new Alcest album Les Voyages De l'Ame (which was issued in January 2012)...and as a tie-over between that album and the current one, Prophecy released the BBC Live Session album in December of 2012.

Which brings us, finally, to that album in question! First, what's new? Well, for the first time, an Alcest album also has guests! Recording the album with Sigur Rós producer Birger Jón Birgisson at the Icelandic Sundlaugin Studio, use was made of Aniima (Sigur Rós) for the added string sessions, and of Slowdive's Neil Halstead for a lead vocal contribution to the song “Away”. Also “new” is Alcest natural progression into what they are today. You see, over the past few years, Neige has gotten extremely infatuated with British '80s Dream Pop pioneers Cocteau Twins, and therefore Shelter displays far less “Metal” elements than ever before. Sure, the Shoegazer Rock is still present in quite a few of the songs, but overall the music leans more toward Pop. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, you know! Okay, so you “purists” out there will puke at this at first listen (especially when surrounded by your peers)...but give the album half a chance, and you will no doubt uncover the nice layering within the music! What with the Shoegazer elements still present, there's of course still that melancholic mood in the music, but personally I was amazed at how lighthearted and uplifting a feel I got from the album overall (and that, I insist, was before I had read the info I'd gathered, you know!) after that first listening session! Oh, a small detail : most lyrics are done in Neige's native language, and weirdly enough, I have a feeling that would those lyrics be in English, they would not be able to convey the same other words: it all fits perfectly!

In fact, I don't particularly like that track with Halstead singing on it. In a way, it sounds só out of whack with the rest of the album...and it's this slight mistake which finds the album missing the opportunity of being nominated for inclusion in my 2014 year-lists!