Souvenirs D'un Autre Monde
Review by Benjamin on June 22, 2021.
The sound of Alcest’s debut album, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde, is familiar and even run of the mill these days, but this development is testament to the extensive and ongoing influence that the band (or perhaps more accurately Neige, the mastermind behind Alcest and their near neighbour, the short-lived Amesoeurs) have had on the contemporary metal scene. A fusion of black metal and the kind of shoegaze originally popularised by indie-leaning outfits such as Ride, Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine now seems like a completely logical step in the development of extreme music, in the light of the mainstream success of kindred spirits Deafheaven’s "Sunbather", as well as the more general incorporation of aspects of the shoegaze sound into the post-metal of Deftones, Mono and many more. This was certainly not the case, however, in the earlier part of this century. Black metal had by that stage of course already welcomed numerous outside influences into its counter-intuitively elastic parameters, despite the protestations of the corpse-painted minority who curse any kind of deviation from 1990s orthodoxy, but even some of the most open-minded genre-hoppers might have baulked at this particular union. Until, that is, they heard the glorious results.
In truth, although elements of their debut are indeed glorious, we should also caution that it is clearly the work of a band finding their feet, and figuring out how to integrate the disparate and even inimical parts of their music into a cohesive whole. Alcest would find a more complete expression of their sound, and attain full glory, across their next two albums, on which they achieve an equilibrium that they do not quite manage on this patchy, but never less than intriguing effort. One should also be wary of overplaying the black metal component of their sound in the rush to acclaim the courage of their genre-breaking intentions. This is not to say that its presence is completely illusory, but that it is subtle enough for one to recognise that much of Alcest’s genuine credibility in extreme metal circles is derived from Neige’s association with, and involvement in, a raft of more overtly metallic bands, rather than because their own music resonates with aggressive black metal fury. It must be noted that these associations include historical membership of the very controversial (and quite possibly very racist) Peste Noire, although there is no suggestion or indication that Neige / Alcest share the political leanings of that particular band, and it would be unreasonable to allow what genuinely appears to be the poor decision-making of a naive teenager to taint the output of a band that do not have any connection to political extremism, lyrically, aesthetically or otherwise.
A far greater influence on the band’s sound is the constant drive on the part of Neige to recapture his childhood experiences of what he claims (apparently with total sincerity) to have been a voyage to an alternative world, populated by fairies, or magical beings of some sort. It’s easy to pour scorn on such supernatural encounters and the likelihood is that Neige has either invented them to generate intrigue and mystique, or (probably more likely, given his unstinting adherence to his narrative) previously entered some kind of hyper-real dreamstate, remembered so vividly and so impactfully that it is been retrospectively rationalised as a paranormal experience. Irrespective of the veracity of Neige’s claims, however, the stories provide a conceptual focus for Alcest, which enables their compositions to be centred around the sonic reconstruction of the far-flung lands visited, and offer a framework for a beguiling and evocative sound in which the band effectively provide the dots, and invite the keen listener to join them together, collectively building a world that hitherto existed only internally within Neige. The thematic thrust of Alcest, perhaps unconsciously, generates a set of rules for what can and cannot work under the banner of their name – shimmering, celestial soundscapes and androgynous, delicate vocals are very much the band’s primary mode of communication. Thunderous brutality, however, is entirely absent, even if Alcest occasionally adopt characteristics of the more extreme sound from which they emerged prior to their first full-length release. The album cover itself is a perfectly realised representation of the music contained within, and demonstrates Neige’s keen eye for imagery that matches the band’s overall aesthetic. The child that is the subject of the photo on the sleeve, looking in some respects like a refugee from Neverland, evoking feelings simultaneously feral and innocent, absent-mindedly plays with a reed or stalk, as if it were an instrument, suggesting a young Neige playing the music of the fairies that he consorted with in the Otherworld.
The album begins, as life on Earth itself does, in spring, with ‘Printemps Émeraude’. Where conventional black metal is the frostbitten sound of the end of all life, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde is instead the sound of renewal, of fertile and fecund growth, and of bucolic and rapturous reverie. And it has to be said, that belying the band’s background in the metal scene, there is very little about the opening track that qualifies as metal at all. The angular chord progression that commences the album, replete with chiming octaves and twinkling lead guitar melodies is more reminiscent of early 2000s indie, more Bloc Party than Blasphemy, more Interpol than Immortal. As the track progresses though, Alcest deftly begin to join the hitherto vast chasm lying between The Smiths and Sarcofago, with the drums maintaining an understated, but undeniable double-bass rumble, and although harmonically the note selection is very much at the pretty end of the beauty spectrum, it also approximates a black metal tremolo, albeit transplanted out of the grim and forbidding north, and into the verdant Mediterranean south. Brief snatches of metallic velocity, the washed out and trebly distortion of the guitars like a distant memory of Scandinavian black metal, reinforce these links, paired with Neige’s instantly recognisable winsome and angelic vocals, before the track breaks down into the kind of languid, watery loveliness that Smashing Pumpkins always dropped into so naturally in their imperial phase. In fact, Alcest at their best have a substantial amount in common with Billy Corgan’s troupe, fond of deploying heavy guitars, and operating in a space adjacent to metal, but just as often exploring calmer, more languorous sonics. There is enough going on in the track to avoid monotony – a couple of modulations in key see to it that the mood and tempo shift often enough to keep the listener’s attention, and as a clear statement of intent, it’s highly successful.
The rest of the first half of the album continues to build on the spiritually metal, but sonically shoegaze manoeuvres of the first track, each offering slight variations on a theme. The better of the two is ‘Les Iris’, which is a perfectly judged epic, adopting slightly more obviously metal chord voicings, a little more treble in the guitar tone, and something approaching a black metal blast. True to the overall vision of the band though, the blasting is less an aggressive display of dominant might, and more a warm cocoon of mesmerising sound, opening a portal to Neige’s ‘fairy land’, and sheltering the listener in a pastoral paradise of ethereal beauty. Coupled with the redemptive second half of the track, which utterly wrenches the blackest of hearts with its subtle and sophisticated melodicism, ‘Les Iris’ is utterly beguiling and fleshes out the blueprint for a sound that would become fully-formed on this album’s successor Écailles De Lune to spectacular effect. The title-track, which precedes it, is not quite as good, but it does feature the first stirrings of what remains one of the hallmarks of the Alcest sound – clean, twinkling guitars layering meandering melodies like a dusting of snow on a windswept chord progression, with Neige’s slightly distant, androgynous ululations transcending their occasional atonality to galvanise the song as a whole into what is now instantly recognisable as blackgaze, but at the time sounded extremely fresh and novel.
Were the second half of the album as good as the first, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde might be considered a minor classic, as opposed to the enjoyable beginnings of a band who would go on to bigger and better things, but the final triptych of tracks ranges from mediocre to downright tedious. ‘Ciel Errant’ in particular is an abomination, although in some respects it is actually rather revealing in terms of demonstrating just how skilled Alcest are to mostly succeed in weaving gold from raw materials that can so easily result in something bland and inoffensive. When Alcest get it right, their melodies provide shards of bittersweet beauty amid torrents of violence; too often here they are facile, cringeworthy, and more pedestrian than London’s busiest shopping street on Christmas Eve. The naysayers might argue that Alcest take black metal as a starting point, only to denude it of all danger, presenting instead a sterile imitation; the desiccated husk of what is left once all vitality has been extracted. It’s an accusation that is mostly unwarranted, but when the spell is broken as it is here, the listener can be forgiven for wondering if Alcest are any good at all. If this glimpse of Alcest without the sparkle of fairy dust that ordinarily elevates their music is unedifying, the final track ‘Tir Nan Og’ recovers some of the lost ground. Employing Celtic mythology to cement the links between Neige’s own experiences and more widely known legends of pre-Christian myth-making, the title apparently translates as ‘Land Of The Young’, describing an island paradise of everlasting youth and joy. Not obvious lyrical subject matter for metal-adjacent music perhaps, but from another perspective, one could argue that it is simply a less cynical and more innocent take on the classic metal obsession with fantasy-based subject matter, and therefore directly connected to metal genealogy in a way that is not immediately apparent from the music itself, which is almost entirely upbeat and holds none of even the lurking undercurrent of menace that stalks their best work. Despite this, and even though it is clearly overlong, it succeeds due to it’s immensely pretty melody, and ability to conjure the magical atmosphere missing from the middle section of the album, concluding a curious album in fitting style.
In the final analysis, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde is notable mostly for what it initiated, rather than what it actually is. By extruding and moulding something that is at least vaguely connected to black metal into shoegaze and post-rock shapes, Alcest provided the catalyst for a generation of bands to combine ethereal soundscapes and pastoral warmth, with some of the sonic characteristics of extreme metal. Furthermore, during the best moments of the album, almost all of which are found in the first three tracks, the combination sounds entirely natural, and even obvious. The effect on the extreme metal scene since the release of this album has been not unlike that caused by Isis in the wake of their monumental "Oceanic" album, which similarly fused post-rock with the apocalyptic sludge, the quieter parts every bit as compelling as the more visceral heavy sections, inspiring countless bands to introduce a greater sense of dynamics to their own febrile riffing. Blackgaze is now very much a sub-genre in its own right, and even bands that don’t fit neatly into this particular descriptive bracket such as Panopticon, or even Wayfarer, betray similar influences, bringing sounds from outside the genre into black metal in a way that would be more startling had Alcest not travelled the path that they have since their early releases. Purely on the basis of the music itself though, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde feels overall rather slight and a little ephemeral, passing through without leaving more than a faint trail for others to follow. There are certainly enough glimpses of the magic that would be more substantially realised on the following two albums to ensure that it is not unenjoyable, and it could be edited to an excellent EP, but evaluating the album as the full-length that the band consider it to be, Alcest are found wanting, even if the listener is found to be wanting more.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10
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