Aging, or perhaps more directly ‘maturing’ is akin to space-faring in referencing the experience of the outsider. The one who’d never quite fit in is not only alone in the world but their survival eventually becomes dependent upon independent thoughts, bigger perspectives, and self-sustaining mantra. There is no charted course or deterministic vision for the next step, yet in any case the next thought is hardly possible without a spirituality custom-generated by the outsider themselves. This is a story writ and acted before, a tried and true spontaneous generation of innovation with love for the old and a vision new; It was the limitless possibilities of black metal that aligned the stars in the eyes of a young, and perhaps disenfranchised, fifteen year old Neige (Stéphane Paut) as the millennium began– In his very different hands a burl formed between the permutations of depressive rock influenced extreme metal that followed. Regardless of how you’d feel about any one of the softening tides of black metal these last two decades, the mutant marriage of ‘blackgaze’ was a seed for the minds of thousands upon thousands of souls who’d been touched and changed by the young French musician’s meaningful hybridization. You could assume that’d be far from the point in 2019, though, right? As Neige and Alcest have intentionally separated the project from black metal spirituality and modus for over a decade now, creating a fusion of post-metal and shoegaze that often pulls from black metal for little more than some light rhythmic values. In fact this sixth full-length from the project, ‘Spiritual Instinct’, is not simply iteration or performative expansion but a sincere effort to reconnect the exhausted and ever-doubting darkened mind with the inquisitive and indomitable spiritual self.
The great challenge of coming from the primal, nihilistic avatar-driven world of black metal as a ‘rough around the edges’ youth is that the default level of connection with the personal artist is meant to be kept at an arms length. For a listener such as myself who’d known the works of Amesoeurs and Alcest as they’d first appear upon the then MySpace driven expanse of social media music discovery the idea that the art came before the artist, that these were separate beings, suggested the focus would remain upon the astral projection and not the projector. It takes some drive as a music fan to humanize the previously otherwordly beings who’d still hold fast their tribalistic stage names and respect for their own roots. I suppose the point is that it’d been impossible to see Alcest at any point in their existence as anything fully capable of one world or the next, one foot is deep in the otherworld of depressive rock and the other is planted in the netherworld of extreme metal, no matter how far they’d stray from darkness. Somehow, the embrace of the heavy and the dark on ‘Spiritual Instinct’ unlocks some of that ‘personal touch’ vital to both extremes, similar to what Sólstafir would divine on the self-stretching ‘Berdreyminn’, though it is clear that Alcest have dug deeper into their past while expanding those emotional possibilities.
The first single “Protection” should at least slightly stun the lapsed fan who’d lost the plot after Alcest‘s transformative EP, ‘Le Secret’ from 2011; The vibe of the song offers a meaningful waft of the ideas found on the relatively groundbreaking Amesoeurs EP ‘Ruines Humaines’, particularly the sweetly harsh vocals at the mid-point. If nothing else, it takes me back to the disgusted black metal fan in 2006 wondering just exactly who these melodramatic French folks thought they were. In some ways a ‘full circle’ moment is enough to pull things into perspective and reveal a great feat of change but to be sure Alcest are still going to appear alien and distant without some invested understanding of their well-developed musical language. Now that ‘Spiritual Instinct’ has your attention, “Sapphire” is there to light the room with a buzzing, shimmering rhythmic hymnal that represents the deeper path forward beyond the addictive grasp of the dark black past. The ever-present theme of ‘one foot in this life and the next’ within Alcest as a project is masterfully communicated between these two singles and they sit happily back-to-back on the tracklist. If that pairing isn’t enough to keep you engaged the momentum continues to build with the characteristically ethereal “L’Ile Des Morts”; An emotional peak that fuses these dark and light moments into a full nine minute ‘dark metal’ epic. The slip into a dreary Forgotten Tomb-esque claustrophobia in the song’s third minute serves to kick the tapestry free of old dust only to slowly pull away, relishing in the unknown expanse beyond the death of the past. This point of transit that introduces Side B ultimately saves the side for my own taste and serves as a vital example of why the expanding oeuvre suggested on ‘Spiritual Instinct’ holds some of the most broad-reaching appeal of any Alcest release to date.
Of course the out of touch or intentionally lapsed fan who’d still expect any sort of pure black metal to be expressed by this band will likely not have the patience or the interest to be held captive in earnest by ‘Spiritual Instinct’ and that’d not be a great shame. Know your own limits and embrace them if it sustains you another day. I’ve no personal investment in this project other than specifically recalling 2009 as a year where atmospheric black metal would change drastically thanks to releases from Alcest and Austere. The major resonance of the full listen wasn’t lost on me but I did eventually find myself focusing on the successes of the tracklist arrangement and overall dynamic of the full listen rather than the specific pieces themselves and this is typically a sign for me as a listener that as ‘singles’ the post-music side of metal haven’t landed. That said, I was hooked in for a handful of meaningful “on repeat” sessions. There are some fantastic hooks within the expanse but I’d largely sit and spin ‘Spiritual Instinct’ for its textural qualities and driving, shimmery rock rhythms while the small nods to Alcest‘s black metal were gilding that’d kept me intrigued long enough to connect with the emotional depth of the narrative. Moderately high recommendation. I’ll pick the record up again for the second, third and fourth songs but the rest of the album merely provides time for me to contemplate their impact. For preview purposes I’d suggest the two curated singles (“Protection”, “Sapphire”) represent the album beautifully but a moment of solitude with “L’Ile Des Morts” is equally essential for understanding.
Embrace these baneful horizons. 3.75/5.0
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