In the ongoing wait for new Alcest material, there’s undoubtedly some out there actively seeking for something that bridges that gap between the icy bitterness of raw black metal and the otherworldly allure of ethereal post-metal. Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Kathrine Shepard, operating under the name Sylvaine, is far from the only musician out there straddling this line, but few do it with such skill and such grace. If you need more convincing, Neige himself is a fan and a collaborator, acting as both session musician and co-producer on the project’s latest full-length, Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone.
Sylvaine’s celestial soundscapes are serene, soothing even, but as warm and inviting as these compositions are, they are not the full package. Sylvaine serves as a therapeutic experience for Shepard, and as such, she doesn’t paint a fantastical view of human life that shies away from its darker aspects. Instead, lurking behind the beauty is a sense of longing that frequently bursts into chaos, with the bloodthirsty rampage of blastbeats and the biting anger of blackened riffs and cathartic shrieks never too far off. This duality reflects the struggles of human life. Though the shoegazey, post-rock moments of wonder are otherworldly in their allure, they come from a place grounded in the ups and downs of everyday life.
Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone explores personal topics for the musician, but this time she has also looked outward for inspiration, drawing from the fractured nature of modern society and the feeling of restraint Sylvaine says the human form instils. The album is certainly an enthralling one, written and executed in a captivating manner that has unquestionably lead to the project’s greatest release to date. Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone boasts stellar songwriting and rich production that walks the very fine line between the warmness of the ethereal numbers and the harshness of the bouts of blackened catharsis. It is deeply poignant, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn more.
Communicating through emails like the 21st Century beings we are, we spoke to Sylvaine about her latest work, the topics that inspired it, its lyrics and themes, and the dwindling importance of genres.
You’ve mentioned that this album draws from the outside world more than your past work. What specifically was it about the modern world that drew you to expanding your lyrical concepts beyond personal topics?
I think it gets to a certain point when you just cannot ignore what is going on anymore. Too much stuff is happening, too much negativity and darkness going around, watching as things just unravel. I feel like our human society always have had issues in some way or another, but the past maybe 5-10 years have really been riddled with negativity, an unkind mindset and a self-centred focus. Seeing as this unravelling also goes hand in hand with my lyrical theme of the human form tainting our more pure origins, it felt natural to draw a bit more inspiration from the outside world this time around.
What is the significance of the title Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone? The title-track talks of a “fragmented existence”, is this referring to modern society?
It absolutely is. It’s a reference to modern society, but also a reference to our time here in this human world in general. Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone represents the feeling of decline when something is coming undone right in front of you. Little by little, something is worn down or broken, until it finally disintegrates completely. Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone not only refers to my personal relationship with life, but also how the human world is destroying everything; nature and man alike. We keep repeating our mistakes, without learning from them it seems.
The album presumably still serves as an outlet for you on a personal level, though. Do you find the writing and recording process a cathartic experience?
Sylvaine is my diary more or less, letting me explore and express issues and wonders that I struggle to deal with in any other way. It doesn’t necessarily offer any lasting solutions, but it serves as a therapeutic catharsis. Every album I’ve made for Sylvaine so far has been highly personal, and I expect it to continue this way for the foreseeable future.
With music that comes from such a personal place, do you find it hard to release it out into the world, almost like everyone is reading your diary?
I suppose a bit, yes. I already had friends get in touch with me and ask if everything was okay these days, as they were worried after hearing tracks from my upcoming album, haha! It’s a bizarre situation having people critique your innermost personal thoughts, but that’s how it goes for every artist. By wearing your heart on your sleeve to that extent, at least your chances of making someone else feel something are greater, to be of comfort to someone else even. That is the most rewarding thing, when someone from a completely different place in the world can feel something personal when listening to your music.
You’ve spoken before about how this album is inspired by a feeling of being trapped by the human form. What is it about humanity that gives you this feeling of being restrained?
The human form is an incredible and wonderful machine, yet I think it is limited in terms of senses and being able to connect to more abstract mediums. I believe we all exist before coming into this human life, and that when we are born, we still carry this love and purity with us from the previous plane. As we grow up in human society, I feel as if we are slowly corrupted by the mindsets and norms of our existence, bringing us further and further away from our origins. I also believe that is why I always felt a longing for something or somewhere else, like something was missing. In that sense, we are restrained while within our human shape. That doesn’t mean that I’m not super grateful for my time here every day. It just makes for a more complicated experience I suppose.
Your sound combines post-rock, black metal, shoegaze and more. Do you think the importance of genres is slowly fading away in modern music?
Completely. I think genre tags are quite unnecessary to begin with; trying to fit something so personal and abstract into small boxes for the convenience of selling more than anything else… And now, it truly is useless to try and outline every music style. Everything is blending, every defined genre is drawing inspiration form the next and the usual boundaries are overstepped. I think it’s quite an interesting time for music in that sense, that we are creating new types of sounds built up of “old” parts mixed together. It’s also a difficult time for music, as there is way too much choice for the audience, tending to make people have less of an attention span. If you don’t like a song after listening to 10 seconds, you can just skip it and move on to the next. At least in the commercial realm, that is true.
Do you find that playing a lot of the instruments yourself and also acting as the producer allows you to have a creative freedom that you might not be able to express in a band?
Absolutely. The main reason I wanted to create Sylvaine, was to be able to have a musical outlet where I could express highly personal matters, without having to compromise due to other members. I’m a slight control freak, as you can imagine, haha…. By playing all the instruments myself, I manage to put a complete personal touch on everything (except for the drums, as my drumming is too basic to fit everything). I might not be the best at any of the instruments I play, but I’m able to express what is needed for my songs, at least for now.
The last few years have been great for new music. Has anything you’ve heard inspired you to approach your music in a different way or think about bringing in new sounds?
The compositional process is a forever changing beast. It never seems to be the same, and always manifests in a different way for each record, at least for me. I’m not sure I can say any new music has inspired me to look at what I do in a different way lately, but I do try to listen to newly released records all the time. It’s interesting to see what our time is reflecting in art and just to keep up on what is happening in the music scene in general. There are a lot of amazing bands out there.
Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone is out November 2nd on Season of Mist. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr