Whilst recent years have seen almost all of metal’s varied subgenres in a remarkable state of health, there are undoubtedly a few who have earnt themselves larger portions of the limelight than others, and if one genre has had the biggest slice in recent months, it’s blackgaze. Throughout 2019, the atmospherically-inclined offshoot of all things blackened has seen an influx of activity and a growing list of upcoming artists who hope to bring something new to the genre. The unfortunate side effect of this, though, is that such periods of consistency often soon find themselves marred by oversaturation. But, whilst there is certainly a case to be made that this stage of monotony has already got underway, one project sure to never disappoint is Alcest.
It’s been around fifteen years since French musician Stéphane “Neige” Paut started using more lush textures to pivot away from the problematic act he initially gained reputation with – a mistake he admits and seemingly regrets sincerely – and the metal scene is much better off for it. So much of the contemporary landscape of post-metal and atmospheric black metal owes heavily to Alcest’s output, and even as swathes of bands attempt to imitate the beauty of the project’s ethereally textured melodies, few have come anywhere near surpassing the scope and elegance of Alcest’s music.
Now on their sixth full-length, the duo see fit to progress subtly but confidently, with Spiritual Instinct comprising a sound that consolidates all the highlights of the preceding albums whilst simultaneously sounding fresh and exciting. As the name suggests, the album seems more inclined towards an introspective and reactive form of songwriting. Where past releases have felt like tight, methodically-crafted pieces, it seems that side of things almost comes naturally by this point, freeing up Neige and his drummer Jean “Winterhalter” Deflandre to explore incorporeal themes – it’s no surprise that Neige has described the record as cathartic.
A key strength the band have over many who have followed their sonic example is their understanding that the blackgaze genre, often defined by its merging of the harsh with the serene, is not always about juxtaposition – sometimes it’s about balance. Rather than switching out blastbeats for atmospheric passages now and then, the opposite sides of the band’s sound frequently run in tandem, finding a harmony as the group craft dynamic blackened dreamscapes that are only bolstered by inch-perfect changes in tempo. This rough blueprint is not rigidly adhered to, however. Opener ‘Le Jardins De Minuit’ may kick things off on familiar (albeit captivating) ground, but the relentlessly infectious melodies of lead-single ‘Sapphire’ – perhaps the least metal track here – are fresh, bold and intoxicating.
The true standouts, though, are the final two offerings. The lamentful tones of ‘Le Miroir’ build steadily, as intone guitar licks are gradually bolstered by choral vocals, electronic flourishes and rising layers of poignant instrumentation. The closing title-track, meanwhile, pulls the band’s varying musical threads together, operating in a realm that’s at once joyful and bleak, organised but chaotic, beautiful yet harrowing. If you were to pitch the band to the uninitiated, this would be the perfect track to lead with.
For some, Spiritual Instinct will not reach the heights Alcest managed to find on Kodama, but if nothing else it’s a reminder that even now few (if any) can hold a candle to them. They remain inimitable, their music soaring into celestial plains yet tugging at your heartstrings in the inexplicable way that only the most powerful and relatable art can. Their music is consistently enthralling, never relying on building to a singular zenith but rather constructing a beguiling atmosphere that’s somehow thrilling and soothing in equal measure, and maintaining it for the span of an entire album. It’s yet another impressive release in a career lined with them, and at the risk of verging into cliché, it’ll be hard to top come AOTY season.
Spiritual Instinct is out now on Nuclear Blast. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr