Shoegaze, for me, has the emotional tone of a gray, overcast day. It seems sad, but there’s an inherently solemn beauty in its calm that kindles quiet reflection. Ultimately, it is the warm glow permeating the thin haze of the clouds that reminds of the sun behind; the revelation that comfort resides between bliss and anguish. This is the affective confluence so elegantly captured by France’s Alcest.
A few short years ago, Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde introduced the world to the unique and compelling sounds of Alcest’s black metal interpretation of shoegaze. Sole member and founder, Neige, made that meeting a relatively straight-forward one in terms of song and album structure, but with Écailles De Lune, he expands his project’s horizons in a few ways. The mood of the new album is darker, though it never quite relinquishes the hope sown on Souvenirs. Contrast is drawn in sharper relief, where bittersweet tremolo and remarkably restrained blastbeats draw desperate urgency from the surrounding waft and wane of contemplative melody. And longer, more expansive song structure gives the broader emotive focus ample room to develop. The addition of Winterhalter (Amesoeurs, Peste Noire, Les Discrets and others), on drums for this record turns out to be important, as well, as his attention to detail, especially on the cymbals, deftly orchestrates the effusive dynamic flow within and between each of the songs.
I don’t want to compare Écailles De Lune to its predecessor any more than necessary, but two things will color perceptions of the former for fans of the latter. First, this new record is not nearly as immediate. Second, its dynamic arc is heavily skewed to the first half. That isn’t to say that the first half is better; only that the impact of the second half effects its greatest weight when the album is experienced in full.
The title track is presented in two extended parts (about 9 minutes apiece), each making use of the full range of Alcest’s sonic palette. Rising quietly from a simple chiming refrain to Neige’s familiar soft vocal embrace, “Part I” is a warm reminder of what made Souvenirs so inviting, if it takes a little more time to speak its piece, eventually coiling in naked introspection before loosing the album’s first bright burst of black metal. “Part II” rides in on gentle waves before picking up where “Part I” left off and then slowly tapering to the delicate atmospherics that opened the album. The result is a slow, smooth ebb and flow that, I suppose, might be a romantic metaphorical reference to the tidal influence of the moon. At least, I’d like that to be the case but, alas, my rudimentary grasp of the French language can neither confirm nor deny this suspicion outright.
The remainder of Écailles De Lune is more pointed, if a little less interesting, although “Percées De Lumière” just might be the best song Neige has written. It’s the shimmery post-punk of Love spun through the improbably uplifting black metal net of Amesouers and it is absolutely brilliant. Unadulterated shoegaze gets its time, too, in the warm lilt of “Solar Song,” which, despite its stirring southern rock-tinged guitar solo, falters some in its narrower dynamic trajectory. Album closer, “Sur L’Océan Couleur De Fer,” features Neige at his melancholic best over (mostly) percussionless, solemnly picked electric guitar. The notes that close this song are among the most beautiful I’ve heard in a long time; the sort that prompt one to lean back, close eyes, and absorb each tone as if it were speaking directly to the heart.
I don’t know that Neige would agree with me, but I’ll say Alcest is about capturing the essence of and elaborating upon the emotional vicissitudes that define our daily lives. Most are tiny, don’t seem to amount to much, but together they give shape to an otherwise formless world. The music on Écailles De Lune is joy and pain, trepidation and abandon, love and loss. The emotion coursing through the new album ranges within and across all of these, each with its own degree of debt to an ever-present underlying sadness. Because it’s all sadness, isn’t it? Love is so strong in the moment because, intuitively, we know it may be gone in the next; happiness for what we have is a function of knowing that one day we will certainly be without. And being content in that knowledge means knowing peace today without fear of tomorrow. This is the sadness of Écailles De Lune: the quiet smile that betrays one’s acceptance of certain loss and the peace that this brings.