By Jonathan Smith
The Prophecy Productions write-up for Alcest’s fourth full-length album, Shelter, states that the record is “about the concept of shelter as a safe place that allows everybody to escape reality for an instant, to reunite with what we really are, deep down.” For myself, Shelter is like a vacation. At first it’s exciting and enthralling to be in a carefully curated hotel in a new place, but the longer you’re away, the more you’re reminded that a vacation is really just a temporary, transitional state towards a return to some other place.
Shelter is a good rock album, and that’s about the extent of how I feel about a lot of it. It’s a not unexpected culmination of Alcest’s gradual yet persistent shift away from their much harsher blackened metal beginnings. Not being very familiar with the music of shoegaze bands such as Slowdive, Lush, and My Bloody Valentine, I can’t speak to the ways in which the band incorporates those apparent influences into Alcest’s sound. The first single from Shelter, “Opale,” is decidedly the most “happy” sounding track on offer. However, it isn’t as representative of the album as one might assume. In actuality, while “La nuit marche avec moi” and “Shelter” definitely lean towards more friendly and accessible sounds, “L’éveil des muses” is a more driven piece and also one of the album’s strongest tracks. “Voix sereines” is ostensibly the most relaxed song on the album, but it features obnoxious lead guitar licks that counter-intuitively intrude on any such feeling the track might provide. “Far Away,” featuring guest vocals from Neil Halstead (Slowdive), is a lazy Sunday of a song with an overly lethargic pace.
Though I initially liked Shelter quite a bit, my enthusiasm for it has diminished more each time I’ve listened to it. Central to Alcest’s music for me has been the band’s taking alienating distortion and shrieks and mixing them with more angelic singing and an overall positive vibe. Through this oil-and-water combination, the band slowly turned what began as a more straight forward black metal sound into a much more musically-subversive and emotion-driven experience. If the title Shelter is meant to refer to an escape or departure from the everyday, then is its style a temporary departure for the band or a more permanent sonic and aesthetic shift? Is Alcest going to experiment and follow whatever aesthetic-influences they wish from here on out, or is this album a sign of sounds to come?
I hear hints of a potentially different course for Alcest on crucial parts of Shelter, one which vocalist/main instrumentalist Neige has ruminated on in past interviews. Both opening instrumental “Wings” and the second half of epic closer “Délivrance” are absolutely fantastic. The use of layered human voices on these songs invokes a more choral, transcendent sound for the band. It suggests ways for Alcest to abandon their metal roots and mainstream rock sounds for something much more ambient, ethereal, and otherworldly. It will be interesting to hear if, after they’ve returned from their escapist journey with Shelter, Alcest have any interest in further pursuing that sort of direction, assuming it’s even possible . . .