Spirituality is one of the more personal topics that an artist can speak about within their music and it’s something that is coloured by experiences and by life as it happens around them. Where many find comfort, some find fear and where some find fear, many find comfort. For Alcest’s Neige (Stéphane Paut), that comfort comes from childhood experiences that he wholly believes happened and that he had no real outlet for until the discovery of music in his teens. We spoke about these moments during an interview in 2016/2017 and the way in which Neige explained what he saw and what he felt gave hope that there is another world waiting for us, if we would only open ourselves to the possibility that this mortal earth is not all that there is. The fear of the unknown for many of us is something that can hold us back, however, with Alcest’s music there is a doorway to this place of wonder and Spiritual Instinct does much to unlock those secrets.
Duality, too, has long been a part of the Alcest sound; ethereal vocals are heavily contrasted with preternatural screams, shimmering guitars are offset with rich and heavy drum work and the images that these opposing elements create are indeed, of light and of dark. Spiritual Instinct feels much darker in tone than previous works and whereas on Kodama (2016) there were shades of light that filtered through the closing stages, Spiritual Instinct is less hopeful in its execution - not that it comes across as depressing, rather that the emotions that are contained within the record are truthful and honest in their expressions which is refreshing, at the very least. The person behind them is becoming aware of how to move forward and that many people will find themselves reflected in the words which can surely bring some relief and comfort. The colours that it evokes edge towards deep blues and rich blacks and the feel is less autumnal that Kodama, instead heading into the depths of winter and the boundaries of the soul and the constant quest for meaning that Alcest have been on since their inception as Neige’s solo project twenty years ago.
During that time Alcest has evolved from a pure black metal worship style band, to becoming the project cited most as creators of “blackgaze” - the melding of dynamic black metal with the layered effects and harmonies of shoegaze. Winterhalter (Jean Deflandre -drums) came on board ten years ago and ever since their partnership has propelled the band into the stratosphere and beyond. Their relationship is one of honesty and respect and this certainly filters into the music and its exploration of human emotion. Alcest’s music is nothing if not honest and Spiritual Instinct continues that journey with bold and breathless strokes of guitar, a full-bodied drum sound and Neige’s instantly recognisable voice.
“Le Jardins De Minuit” opens Spiritual Instinct and immediately sets out the blueprint for what is to come on the record. Gorgeous, cascading guitars filter through the darkness set forth by the dominating bass during the initial moments of the song while Winterhalter’s drum sounds push for space and Neige’s haunting vocalisations fall into view. The serenity that is created here is, sadly, not built to last and soon harder edges battle for supremacy through faster rhythms and darker toned vocals (still sang in that bittersweet, clean style) that steer the song into harsher territory. That unique scream of Neige’s makes its first appearance, however at this moment it is hidden behind singing, as though the shadow-self is making itself known slowly, waiting for the perfect time to fully reveal its true colours, baiting its breath for the final confrontation which finally happens in the euphoric closing minute of the song. It’s this dynamic that Alcest are adept at creating and here it works perfectly; the light and the shade vie for power and while the song heads towards its end, the dual nature of the self is allowed to thrive.
This dynamic is something that is carried throughout Spiritual Instinct, and indeed through most of Alcest’s work (2014s metal-free Shelter notwithstanding), however it’s not an overused or overwrought style and where many can fail at bridging the two aspects, Alcest are masters of their craft and so the quiet/loud, push and pull effect works succinctly. Harmony is key for Alcest and with “Sapphire” those harmonies and brought into view by the unusual, wordless vocalisations that Neige has used on several songs previously. It’s strange, to know that no words are being spoken but it makes perfect sense for a band who use unknown worlds for inspiration. The language here is of this other realm as there are no known words for the experiences and memories that are being channelled. They do, though, hold melody and melancholy within them and where screams appear, they are again hidden behind those more commanding clean sounds, the darker self biding its time until its full reveal.
The centrepoint of the record is the majestic “L'Île Des Morts” which is an interpretation of Arnold Böcklin’s (the Swiss painter) painting Die Toteninsel - or in both cases, The Isle of the Dead - and so it’s mournful themes are rendered in much more sombre tones than other songs on the album. Vocals are gloomier, the light is cast in pearl silver and glittering stars while the harsher screams are suspended in sorrow rather than anger. There is a sense of despondency in the progression of the song and while the guitars ramp up their pace, there are beautiful choral-like chants enveloping everything, as if to protect those within this baleful isle from the horrors of loss and death and the feelings of overwhelming pain that comes from that. Alcest has always been a personal project for Neige, who writes the lyrics for the band, but Spiritual Instinct is surely his most personal music to date. The last few years have clearly taken a toll in ways that cannot be imagined and the sense of hopelessness and inner darkness really comes through on this record.
By the time the opening notes of “Spiritual Instinct” are rang in, the sense of being on a tremendous journey truly hits home. There are feelings of trepidation and dread, of course, but also that there has been a cleansing. That these difficult moments have been sent to test us and that this music has been brought to us in order to help us out of these times of doubt. For Alcest, the music is surely a catharsis and for listeners there is a similar effect on the psyche. “Spiritual Instinct” is cinematic in its scope and guitars move in beautiful patterns while Neige’s voice is captivating as it carries us towards the inevitable end. Relief is found in its closing moments and the much needed opportunity to take a breath in the sunlight finally comes as the song builds to its supernal climax. Hope may not be offered but the allusion is that it is possible, that deep within the darkness it lives, like the transience of twilight.
9.0 / 10
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