Kramer vs. Kramer: Alcest – Les Voyages de l’Âme
Consensus sucks. It stands as the closest thing to objective truth in discussing something as subjective as the arts, but it’s nearly impossible to reach. Moreover, consensus is boring.
Diverging opinions are exciting. Often, someone learns more about a piece of music by looking at what two writers fight over, as opposed to what they agree on.
In the spirit of disagreement, Invisible Oranges presents a new series of articles: Kramer vs. Kramer. Or, to non-cinemaphiles, blog writer deathmatch: two writers listen to a new piece of music and debate its merits, then you readers enjoy the spilled ink .
In this installment, Alcest’s Les Voyages de l’Âme, another controversial piece of melodic, psychedelic “black metal” from the prolific French singer/guitarist Neige. Joseph Schafer in the blue corner, a vocal fan of Neige’s work and the “blackgaze” movement in general, will debate Richard Street-Jammer, who has contempt for everything, in the red corner.
Right off the bat, I have three conflicting opinions about Les Voyages de l’Âme. One, that I very much enjoy listening to the record; two, that this is the weakest Alcest record; and three, that it is also the least “metal” of the Alcest albums. Neige focuses more on the melodic elements of his work here, at the expense of blast-beats and shrieks. Usually, I wouldn’t say that losing these elements causes poor songwriting, but I’m inclined to make an exception for Voyages. For example, my favorite moment on the album — my favorite moment in Alcest’s discography since “Elevation” on Le Secret, actually — is the climax riff on “Faiseurs de Mondes”, which sounds like the most “metal” guitar work on the record.
. . .
Alcest – “Faiseurs de Mondes”
. . .
I hear the shift away from blastbeats and screams too, but it’s not less metallic than previous albums. Distorted and tremolo strummed guitars are still the backbone of the music. Voyages sounds more melancholy, but less dreamlike and wondrous than Écailles de Lune did. Écailles had a sense of longing and felt romantic at times, but I don’t hear either of those qualities with Voyages at all. Écailles‘ music had two opposing affects on me. When I listened to it, the music matched the cover art, as if I were really going to wake up in an ocean with a mermaid’s hair draped over me. It was like being in a dream. After I listened to Écailles, I felt as though my life was a fairy creature’s nightmare where magic didn’t exist and happy endings were as fables. My life felt more real and more mundane, and it was an unpleasant feeling. I don’t get any of this from Voyages, either.
Maybe he did it on purpose?
What emotions are you picking up on from Voyages? Do you think Neige’s intent has shifted?
Unfair question! I’ve spoken with the man — I know his intentions remain the same. As a matter of fact, I think the cinematic or visual qualities of his work have been stepped up — I hear more different and distinct tonal qualities shifting and interacting. Specifically Neige’s clean lead tone sounds superb; you can hear it best on the title track, as well as in that riff I loved on “Faiseurs”.
. . .
Alcest – “Les Voyages de l’Âme”
. . .
These sounds may come from an increased budget — more and better pedals and amps mean more and purer tones to experiment with. Even if his painterly vision has remained intact, he’s using different kinds of paint. In this sense, it’s probably to Neige’s advantage that he moves away from black metal, which functions on a certain sonic homogeneity (or at least used to).
I’m changing my mind and agreeing with you: this album is less metallic than Écailles. The fact that I never noticed that after 11 listens highlights my problem with this album. I’ve been hinting at this but I might as well say it: Voyages doesn’t work for me in musical terms. I’m not really a fan of Écailles, but it succeeds by communicating Neige’s vision and intent.
Écailles was dreamlike, and it was not a lucid dream. I drifted along to the music, bound for the mermaids and the sea. Voyages just drifts. There’s no dream or wonder anymore. It’s like floating in a pond, drifting and circling through the fog.
Sort of to prove your point, the image that this brought to mind feels . . . I hate to say “wussy”, but certainly passive. When I hear Voyages, I think of some of the moments in “Fantasia”. More specifically, “The Waltz of the Flowers”. The shifting of sounds on top of one another feels like those animated calls moving over one another through panes of glass. For comparison: Écailles made me think of Aronofsky’s “The Fountain”, which was also a passive film, but had an edge to it. The issue is that in moving away from metal, Neige sacrifices some opportunities for climactic moments. Let’s be honest, you watch “Fantasia” to see “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Rite of Spring”. Dancing flowers are cool, but not as engaging as fighting dinosaurs or Chernabog.
. . .
Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from Fantasia
. . .
When I prepped for this review by listening to the album, after three listens I had to force myself to hit the play button. No matter how hard I tried, my attention drifted. After 11 listens, I can’t remember a single part of the album. I tried every method I could think of to concentrate on it, but nothing worked. I had to force myself to listen a twelfth time to realize that you were right about the album being less metallic.
The fighting dinos are some of the highlights of “Fantasia”. My metal must have some dino combat moments, but Alcest is not metal any more, and the concept of dino combat highpoints doesn’t fit into the band’s mission statement. I was going to say something about how heavy metal speaks in the active tense and Alcest is passive tense metal, but the adjective “metal” no longer applies.
Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” from Fantasia
. . .
Even if it’s not metal, the passiveness of Les Voyages doesn’t work for me. Artistically, the decision to shift away from metal is logical. Ecailles balanced the black metal and the dreamy parts well, but only in a technical sense. The best parts were the dreamy bits. I don’t see how the black metal parts ever fit with Neige’s vision. I’m not sure, though, how Neige made the logical decision to cut back on the aggression to communicate a certain feeling, and yet I no longer sense that feeling at all.
Where do you see Neige going with the next album, and will the message change? Is there anything he can do to engage a listener like me? Finally, I get the sense that this album works for you musically, but does it work for you as a piece of art?
I would be very surprised if Alcest ever released an album that does not deal with Neige’s ideas of extrasensory experience. If Voyages is any indicator, that conceit is more central to the band’s identity than an explicit sound.
I’d love to see an acoustic Alcest EP or album — what can Neige do when he’s divorced from expensive amps and pedals? Would that sudden openness of sound choke the life out of his guitar playing, or would he find new ways to sound haunting? I would hope the latter, and that he would incorporate those discoveries back into an electric Alcest. I get a sense that the genre tags associated with Alcest puts many listeners off — and that goes for shoegaze and noise rock fans as well as black metal enthusiasts. Something like an acoustic EP, or something similarly minimal, could break that association for you.
For me, Voyages works when the songs work. When they do not, it does not. Ironically enough, black metal and shoegaze share the same weakness: too often the musicians involved rely on sound to carry meaning instead of songcraft. There is no substitute for a great song, though Voyages has a few.
. . .
And just in case you’ve never seen Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain”, here you go (if you pay very close attention, you will see a close approximation to Emperor’s Reaper-Knight)
Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” from Fantasia
. . .