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How Alcest’s “Écailles de Lune” Set Off the Blackgaze Craze

ecailles

“I don’t care about genres, musical references. I don’t especially want to push [black metal] limits nor have the pretension to create a new genre, I just want to spread an otherworldly sound.”

That’s Neige, the guitarist, vocalist, and sole full-time member of Alcest, answering questions about Écailles de Lune, the band’s second album. Ten years to the day since then, it’s become abundantly clear that Alcest opened a new lane within black metal, irrespective of Neige’s thoughts on genre specifics.

The term “blackgaze” (a portmanteau of two previously unrelated genres, black metal and shoegaze) first started bouncing around Tumblr, Reddit, RateYourMusic, and plenty of metal blogs in the early 2010s as a shorthand descriptor for bands that combined the traditionally harsher elements of the former with the dreamier qualities of the latter. By 2015, even The Guardian was running blackgaze trend pieces.

Especially stateside, the main catalyst for blackgaze’s surge was Deafheaven’s Sunbather from 2013 — it received so much critical acclaim that it still stands as the highest-rated album of 2013 of any genre on aggregation site Metacritic. A crossover from metal to non-metal at such a degree was wholly unprecedented for anything even remotely black metal; the same goes for the backlash Sunbather weathered from less receiving metal communities.

Yes, if you’re looking for blackgaze’s true powder keg moment, there’s no question it’s Sunbather. But even if we use Deafheaven themselves as a case study, it’s clear that blackgaze bands owe at least some debt to Alcest. Alcest took Deafheaven on tour in 2012, before they were big enough to headline midsize venues on their own, and Neige contributed spoken word vocals to Sunbather track “Please Remember.” The bands are clearly peers, and it makes no sense to suggest that Alcest somehow wasn’t influential for Sunbather. Deafheaven have cited bands like Weakling, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Ludicra alongside Alcest, too, and hearing those connections only further reinforces the leg-up courtesy of Alcest.

The turning point for Alcest’s popularity, and then blackgaze as a whole, was Écailles de Lune. In honor of its tenth anniversary today, we sought a better sense of its rapidly-earned legacy by speaking with a number of bands from across the globe who consider it influential, if not a classic unto itself.

Although Écailles de Lune was really the first Alcest album to feature the key combination of black metal aesthetics (IE blast beats and harsh vocals), shoegaze signifiers (IE “pretty” guitar tones and singing, and a full-bodied production sound, Neige had been playing around with those elements for several years. After 2001 demo Tristesse Hivernale, Alcest released the Le Secret EP, which Neige personally considers to be “the first Alcest release.” Like Écailles de Lune, it features a pretty revolutionary mixture of clean and harsh guitar textures and vocal deliveries, but with an initial release limited to only 1000 CDs in France, it didn’t reach many ears until a 2011 reissue. Alcest’s much more widely distributed 2007 debut album, Souvenirs d’un autre monde, boasted a much lusher soundscape, but almost entirely did away with screaming and general senses of heaviness. Despite that, it made waves with metal fans.

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JJ (vocalist, Harakiri for the Sky): The first time I heard Alcest was when their first album came out, I think it was September 2007. I liked it from the first second, as it was different from the “standard” black metal stuff I listened to at that time. It was also around the same time I discovered post rock as a genre, and bands like Sigur Rós, so the first Alcest album [arrived] right on time.

Sivyj Yar: It was​ 2007 when I first listened to Alcest and of course, it was Souvenirs d’un autre monde — my favorite album from their discography. For me, those were the peak years​ of​ new changes in heavy music –​ Jesu, Alcest, Drudkh, Woods of Desolation, Ride for Revenge,​ Amenra, Peste Noire and many others, including those who had been pioneering​​ new forms for a while but actually reached a new audience by that time. Electronic and avant-garde​ music were overtaken in the fields of innovation and freshness. It seemed like​ all the exciting things were in metal.

Josh Strawn (vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Vaura): My cousin, who was into black metal long before I ever was, played me Souvenirs d’un autre monde along with a bunch of other records. It was the one I liked the best of everything he played for me. At the time I was really involved with the Wierd Records scene and weekly party, so I was on a steady diet of Asylum Party, Trisomie 23, The Lucy Show, Opera de Nuit, etc. A record like Souvenirs wasn’t worlds away from that aesthetic.

Three years later, Écailles de lune reached even more ears.

Sylvaine: “Écailles de lune, Pt. 1″ was actually my very first encounter with Alcest ever, as a friend of mine wanted to show me this amazing, dreamy band he had found from France. I was attending a one-year boarding school for music at the time, so we were in our daily rehearsal studio when the magic of Alcest hit me for the very first time. I remember very clearly the moment when those aquatic first riffs played from the speakers. It was overwhelming, I instantly fell in love.

Unreqvited: My first encounter with Alcest was by complete chance. I stumbled upon “Sur l’océan couleur de fer” and was blown away by the track’s raw beauty. To this day it’s my favorite Alcest track.

Brett Boland (vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Astronoid): [Astronoid guitarist Casey Aylward] and I are avid CD collectors. We used to go into the local record store (Bullmoose Music) and just blind buy stuff that looked cool/interesting. While looking through the metal section I came across Le Secret. I had never heard of this band Alcest but the album art and packaging were amazing. There were two albums there, Le Secret and Écailles de Lune. I ended up buying Le Secret because of the cover. We got in the car and put in this record of a band we had never heard of. First song starts— we were digging the heartfelt black metal vibe— and then the vocals came in and we were both dumbfounded in the best way. I did the only thing that was rational and turned the car around and bought Écailles de Lune. We listened to both records on the way home driving around and were blown away. One blind buy changed everything for me.

Marunata: When I first listened to Alcest, I felt like I finally discovered what I’d been looking for in metal/rock for ages.

MS (multi-instrumentalist, Harakiri for the Sky): This album was one of the three we (JJ and I) were listening to when we decided to start HFTS. The album has a unique atmosphere, the melodies carry you away, even combined with blast beats.

“I was conscious that I was making something different from the first album,” Neige said in 2010, “Écailles de Lune is darker, more complex, and progressive.” Those elements of the album made it a favorite among aspiring metal musicians who enjoyed black metal but were either growing bored with it or didn’t feel a kinship with the existing trappings of the genre.

Marunata: I think [Écailles de Lune] is the perfect blend of Alcest’s black metal roots and shoegaze influence. [The] singing in a soft, ethereal voice over blast beats was something no one would dare try before Alcest. After all, black metal is known for its “trve” and unapologetic fan base that won’t hesitate to shame a band publicly for being too soft and not evil enough. To put it in a nutshell, Alcest took the best of what they liked in both genres and mixed it without giving a fuck about this pseudo-black metal evil codes one should follow in order to be accepted by the community. And it worked, because it was new and genuine.

Unreqvited: With Écailles de Lune, Alcest truly perfected the blackgaze sound that is becoming increasingly popular today. What Alcest did on Souvenirs and perfected on Écailles de Lune was something that pushed the boundaries of black metal and explored brand new territories of music in general.

Brett Boland: Alcest were able to take what they did with Souvenirs d’un autre monde and refine it. They found their formula to create something completely heartfelt and converge that with a genre that normally embodies anger and malice. It’s clear that they were doing what they wanted to do with their music; melding shoegaze and black metal. That is what essentially brought them to the forefront of their genre. They provided something new and fresh to the metal community.

JJ: I started listening to black metal at 13 or 14 years old, so I was already a little bit bored of just listening to black metal over and over again. Then post rock and bands like Alcest came into my life. I think that kinda saved me… Écailles de Lune is, for sure, the classic Alcest album to me. Every song is a classic and it is one of the pioneering post-black metal albums, unmatched still today. I think for me, as for MS, it is one of the most important albums of all-time.

Sylvaine: Écailles de Lune is an album that holds so many things. It’s very rich in its expression, yet very raw and bare in other ways. It still holds the innocence and purity from the first album, just adding additional layers of more contrasted emotions and a tiny bit more connection to the earthly world… The mix between the harsh and the ethereal is really perfect on this record.

Josh Strawn: Vaura played the first three or four dates on the longest U.S. leg of [Alcest’s 2012] tour. We were tapped to do the whole 30-some date tour, but our bandmates’ other commitments prohibited us from doing it. I think Écailles was a jump ahead in the songwriting, you cherish every note on that record, every melancholy turn, every ecstatic lift. But people were also kind of ready for music like this in some way. Just the show we did in Brooklyn with them and Deafheaven, when Vaura and Deafheaven were the most unknown quantities, the room was packed and peoples’ response was really energetic to all the bands. When you have those two things, a really almost perfectly written and executed album, and a world that’s hungry for that kind of music, that’s when things fall into place.

When Écailles de Lune came out, Brandon Stosuy was writing metal column Haunting the Chapel for traditionally indie-rock-focused site Stereogum, who presented Alcest’s first New York City concert in 2010. He recalls that year as a turning point for black metal’s popularity among people who didn’t usually listen to metal.

Brandon Stosuy: I remember, around that time, a lot of people would definitely say things to me like “I don’t usually like metal, but i like this. Does this mean I like metal?” I think people had a very specific idea of what heavy metal was— this very cartoonish Beavis and Butthead aesthetic— and left it at that, without really investigating all the different sounds and gradations and influences of that genre… One thing I found interesting around then (and even now) was that a lot of people would say that they liked metal in high school, but had “outgrown” it, as if metal had just stopped evolving and was this stagnant, ossified thing. That, obviously, isn’t true at all. It’s kept moving. But people needed an entry or reentry point.

Bands like Alcest (and, later, Deafheaven, for example) caught people off guard, I think. These sorts of bands confused/played with people’s expectations, which gave them a reason to open their minds and ears a bit— this led them to deeper discovery in the whole “shoegaze black metal” zone and beyond… In general, I think people are more open to a wider variety of music at this point (2020). Maybe it goes back to that moment around 2010.

In addition to audiences’ “discovery” of the first wave of what came to be known as blackgaze, this moment also proved fertile due to Écailles de Lune’s influence on other musicians.

Brett Boland: There would be no Astronoid without Alcest. [Our] first EP and Air were heavily influenced by Alcest. They were dominating [bassist Daniel Schwartz] and I’s attention at the time and inspiring us to act with conviction. There were times that I thought we needed to do something because it seemed “right”— had to have screaming or make it heavy. I didn’t want it, but that’s what the genre was. I would always say to myself, ‘Well if Alcest can get away with it, I’m going to go with my gut.’ I gained confidence from the risks that they took through their art to create my own.
Unreqvited: Écailles de Lune got me into the genre, and I likely wouldn’t be making the music that I make for Unreqvited without it. Getting to release music alongside Alcest while the genre is still so young and in its developmental stage is really exciting. I hope I can someday make a fraction of the impact Neige has had on music.
Marunata: I have a rather high and feminine voice without trying, and so does Neige, and it has helped me gain in confidence to use it as it is without trying to sound differently from who I am. Same about my music. I love me some good old raw Norwegian black metal, but my roots are in dreamy music, not in metal, and Alcest (and Écailles de Lune) showed me the way to let myself write the music I wanted, to mix my influences as I thought I should and not based on what I assumed people were expecting from a post-black metal band.

Josh Strawn: [Alcest] definitely [influenced me], and I’ve told Neige this to his face. I was coming from a lot of cold wave, especially French cold wave, and it was mostly French black metal that seduced me into black metal. Blut Aus Nord was pivotal because it re-invigorated my passion for the guitar as an instrument that you could push to extreme limits. But it was Celestia, Alcest, and Lifelover that really gave direction as to how my old songwriting style at the time could progress into something else. Écailles de Lune also hit me in a really transitional hard time in life. It felt really personal. Even though Selenelion was [our] record that was out at this time, a lot of the songs that ended up on The Missing were written at the same time. Songs like “The Fire” and the title track were coming from that experience.

Sivyj Yar: Every significant​ thing which is somehow connected with your own craft doesn’t simply disappear… I’ve just noticed an​ interesting​ thing — I feel more attracted to​ Souvenirs d’un autre monde’s sound, but if somebody draws a parallel between​ Sivyj Yar and Alcest,​ they’ll more likely mention​ Écailles de Lune. In addition to the brilliant​ songs,​ the strong points of the album are its production, structure, certain​ conceptuality and (last but not least)​ Fursy Teyssier’s beautiful​ cover artwork.

Sylvaine: I was always attracted to the duality between the light and the dark within sound, ever since I started getting more seriously into music at around 14… Listening to the music of Alcest gave me hope for my own future in music somehow, giving me that extra nudge I needed to push through my lack of self-confidence and let myself just do my own thing and say what I needed to say. There’s no doubt that Alcest has become one of the most precious bands in my life, for so many reasons, and I will always be grateful to that dear friend of mine who brought me into their world back in 2010.

MS: [Écailles de Lune has influenced me] simply because of what I feel when I listen to it. It doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s music that speaks to me, and in the end that’s something I also want to achieve when I write a song.

Now, about the term “blackgaze,” which each band quoted here has been associated with at some point in their careers: just like Neige, many of them don’t like to concern themselves with genre specificities. But setting aside their personal feelings, most of them are willing to say that Alcest sparked something different in metal.

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Sylvaine: I’m not a huge fan of genre tags in general to be very honest, as I always found it kind of strange to try to put something abstract into more concrete terms. What genre a certain song, album, or artist belongs to might be the least important thing to talk about. But setting all of my personal feelings aside and knowing what the “blackgaze” sound usually is supposed to reflect, I think Alcest will always be the masters of that. Even with a few bands experimenting with similar sounds before, I always saw Alcest as the pioneers, the ones that inspired all the rest of us in one way or another so to speak. And thinking of this “blackgaze” term; the balance between the light and the dark, between nostalgia and hope, between the heavy and the melodic, between black metal influences and more ambient/shoegaze influences, is especially perfect on Écailles de Lune.

Marunata: I think [the term “blackgaze”] doesn’t really mean anything anymore. To me, blackgaze is black metal with shoegaze influences. I love Alcest, I hate (nothing personal, just don’t like the music) Deafheaven, who are supposedly the second-biggest blackgaze band in the world. Alcest were at the origin of the sound, but they have evolved, they have created their own sound, while I feel like a lot of so-called blackgaze bands are just trying to put the same ingredients in their pot and try to be successful with it. But most of the time, it’s bland and soulless. The only famous blackgaze band other than Alcest that I really like is Violet Cold, for the same reason as Alcest, as Emil put his electronic influences in his music, instead of just trying to be yet another Alcest.

Josh Strawn: I try not to worry about these words very much, artists almost never create them, nor do we have any control over them or how they’re used… I went to see Slowdive with Neige at a festival we were both playing, we’re fans. But I don’t think either of us has ever sat down and thought, “What if I add some blast beats to a shoegaze riff?” As a writer I think the natural affinities between different kinds of music that you like tend to find one another more naturally and subconsciously. As for whether Alcest is blackgaze, again that’s up to whomever is trying to put a name to what they do. When I see Vaura referred to as blackgaze I just say to myself, “OK, someone views our music that way,” and leave it there.

JJ: Alcest are a great example for blackgaze, as they have many of these shoegazing moments that alternate with harsh and heavy black metal parts. To be honest, Alcest are the perfect example for blackgaze to me. It is difficult to explain where post-black metal ends and blackgaze begins— it’s more a certain feeling. But generally I don’t think much about genres and their definition.

Sivyj Yar: I think [blackgaze is] a pretty blurry term that describes the music of very different​ bands and projects,​ from Bliss Signal to Alcest​, or even Drudkh. If this could navigate somebody, I don’t mind.​ I guess that​ black metal has always had similarities with shoegaze music in the areas of guitar​ sound and production techniques. These two genres came around to those​ independently of each other.​ ​In that case,​ Neige was the first person who opened people’s eyes to those similarities through his art.​ ​

Brett Boland: I consider Alcest to be the pioneers of [blackgaze]. There may have been bands that played with these ideas, but Alcest are the first ones to fully realize the sound. The sounds of Slowdive and 90’s shoegaze are always present in their music, but in a way that doesnt feel contrived. They have enveloping sections of beauty juxtaposed with intense blast beats and tremolo picking. Their combination of the two is what separates them from their peers in the genre.

Unreqvited: I believe they are the quintessential blackgaze band. Whether they are the first band to do it or not, I’m unsure, but they certainly pioneered the blackgaze sound that is popular today. A few bands before Alcest may have written the recipe for blackgaze, but Alcest baked the cake.

As Unreqvited suggests, there are several other bands that were making similarly-styled forms of metal around the same time as Alcest, and independently of them. Artists like Njiqahdda, Heretoir, Fen, Austere, and Woods of Desolation spent the late 2000s fusing black metal signifiers with more melody-driven compositions and non-aggressive moods. A post-hardcore/screamo band has an even earlier claim — just as frequently as Alcest, you’ll see Japanese greats Envy cited as blackgaze progenitors, and they’ve been making music since the mid-90s. Even Neige himself had been involved in a handful of other projects that could feasibly be called blackgaze, namely Amesoeurs and Lantlôs.

But something about Alcest has stuck in a way that aspects of those other bands, great as they are, have not. We’ll close by letting the artists comment on the effects they believe Alcest has wrought on black metal.

MS: [Alcest’s] whole sound and atmosphere is distinctive. You hear it and you know it’s Alcest immediately. Bands that just try to simply copy that style will most likely fail, as the understanding of melodic beauty is unique. To me personally they are peers, and also guided me towards melancholic beauty in music.

JJ: It’s a pioneering album, nearly impossible to overcome. Next to it there was just the one and only Amesoeurs album, neon. by Lantlôs (in which both Neige was a very important part as well) and the first Les Discrets album. There are hundreds of good albums in the genre to date, but those were its pioneers.

Brett Boland: Alcest paved the way for other people to take risks and maybe try things that are not normal in the genre of metal. In a time where bands like Wolves in the Throne Room, Agalloch, and Krallice were dominating the black metal scene, Alcest offered an alternate take which was new and more hopeful. Écailles de Lune showed myself and other musicians that it was okay to go out of your comfort zone and create something that broke the rules and found its own place in the metal community even though it wasn’t universally accepted by metal.

Sivyj Yar: The growing​ interest in [blackgaze] became fuel for further interest in more traditional and underground metal, whether they liked it or not. Even those bands​ who hate Alcest or similar artists for what they think of as selling out or​ superfluous sweetness should be grateful for them, because any hate should​ encourage them​ to forge ahead. Otherwise it will​ just​ devour you.​

Josh Strawn: I’d have to let other bands and writers speak for themselves. Alcest, to me, is part of something that happened in metal in the late 00’s and early 10’s that was really valuable and necessary, and the only reason I ever found any home or audience in the scene at all. There’s of course been tons of pushback against it, but for me it’s been carving out a less macho space in metal. Expressing, whether lyrically or musically, more vulnerability. That had gone missing from a lot of metal as “extreme” metal became more predominant. I always use the Sabbath example: Ozzy was a vocalist that communicated a significant amount of vulnerability. Halford could do it, and I’m not just talking about when they are doing ballads. This needed to make a return and I think Alcest is a major signpost for that return. The more macho meathead metalheads hate it, the more I love them for it!

Marunata: I think Écailles has influenced black metal in general and has allowed it to be more diverse, to be more than just evil music made by bored loners. Écailles showed that you can use black metal’s aggressive sound to represent powerful emotions, not just hatred and disgust.

— Patrick Lyons

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