Neige’s Instinctual Spirit Glimmers on “Spiritual Instinct” (Interview)
Hailed as legend throughout the realms of heavy music and considered the founder of its subgenre, unconventional French outfit Alcest stands as one blackgaze's pioneering acts, wedding the dreamy and claustrophobic aural waves of black metal and the melancholic pedalboard-worship of shoegaze. The outfit’s founder Neige (the stage name of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Stéphane Paut) has unflinchingly led the band though several eras, across two decades, on a quest to share a peculiar and esoteric personal experience with the world. After the 2000 release of the band's first, more traditionally second-wave black metal demo Tristesse Hivernale, the only recording created by the original lineup, Alcest transformed into Neige's solo project and thereby the vehicle he would use as an unprecedented synthesizer of styles.
Long before the advent of the style that Alcest would eventually catalyze, the band's 2005 L’Secret EP introduced the world to the lush, obliquely blooming turmoil that we now recognize as blackgaze. With relentless blast beats and tremolo-picked guitars colliding against a soaking of timbres and orchestration, Neige’s fusion was fascinating because of its combination of once-overlooked commonalities between black metal and mid-1990s shoegaze. By focusing on effects layers and trance-inducing soundscapes present in both styles, Alcest became one of the first entities to stake a claim on this common ground; it also granted authenticity to the outlandish thematic concepts conjured from the mind of its creator.
The inspiration behind Neige’s deeply personal material is as emotionally stirring and spiritual as it is ethereal and otherworldly; in his youth, Neige had the impression of being in contact with a “luminous, far-off country," an ephemeral realm endowung him with a wealth or otherworldly experiences that would become the focus of his artistic journey. The music of Alcest is thus a conduit by which he seeks to communicate the experiences from these precious memories, to evoke the bittersweet nostalgia and whimsical sense of adventure lingering within his soul.
Over the course of the project’s first four records, Alcest honed in further and further on this whimsical landscape of light and fantasy, their approach gradually turning toward more benign and soft-edged atmospherics more typical of post-rock. Shoegaze aesthetics soon became the dominant force in their sound, culminating in 2014’s soft-edged Shelter, which dropped metal influences altogether. Their fifth album Kodama (2016), however, saw a decided return to more aggressive, jagged tones and harsh vocals, though not without the contemplative expansiveness of their softer material still present and wholly intact.
Now, with the release of Alcest's sixth album Spiritual Instinct arriving Friday, I was graced with an incredible opportunity to speak one-on-one with Neige. I inquired in-depth about Alcest’s unfettered commitment to personal growth and development through musical expression. Having explicitly stated that the album’s recording process was especially lengthy and arduous compared with Alcest’s previous works, Neige’s return to a more raw, unfiltered outpouring of aggression emphasizes overtones of angst and inward conflict in order to purge the negativity and emotional plaque that inevitably builds up within one’s soul. But Spiritual Instinct’s increased attention to the more feral, blackened elements present at the inception of Alcest’s sound does not suggest a simple “back to basics” mentality but rather a full realization of the searing interplay between pain and pleasure that defines their character.
Through the course of our discussion, I began to realize that the revelations present on Spiritual Instinct, however personal, bear countless universal human truths. Seated deep within each of us, there is a primal duality that cannot be denied or repressed: ultimately, our dark side must be acknowledged and even nurtured, lest it consume us entirely.
Spiritual Instinct presents a marked return of the more bleak, hard-hitting elements within Alcest’s sound while also maintaining the heartfelt melodicism upon which you typically focus. What experiences, personal or otherwise, have spurred this recent shift back into darker, more jagged territory? What do you intend to convey with the more confrontational timbres present on this record?
I think I just really wanted to translate my more anxious and angry and dark emotions into this project because I usually try to always make a sound that is very dreamy and uplifting and otherworldly, but this time I had a lot of heavy things to carry and put out, you know? So when I started to write the first song I could feel that I needed to put something out that would be… sometimes with music we say catharsis, and this was a really cathartic record for me. For the first time in a really long time I felt like I really had something to put out of myself.
You had mentioned that recording the album was a more involved process -- maybe at times more strenuous, but also more rewarding. What were some of the positive moments in that process, and what were some of the challenges that you faced therein?
I would say it was mostly challenging moments [laughs]. In the positive, I could say how the record sounded in the end, because in the end we were very happy. But we went through a lot of troubles and we made our lives very complicated from the beginning. We were kind of pushed to go into the studio, because there was a deadline to respect for the dates we had booked to record. And we were not completely, completely ready; we still had some things to figure out, so that wasn’t a great thing. Everything took more time than usual, it was one of these cursed situations. A lot of bands have cursed recordings, and I hope we won’t do something worse than that, because I guess we would lose our minds a little. It was really long, everything took ages because I think everyone in the band, and a lot of our fans really liked the sound of Kodama, and that kind of put some pressure on us, you know? Pressure to do something that sounded really good. Because we were confident in the songs, but how that’s going to translate into a proper recording, you can never really know. We had very high expectations and we worked with someone we know very well, he’s a friend of ours.
Sometimes when you work with friends, you don’t have as much of a time limit, so we took all the time in the world. And actually sometimes it’s better to have a deadline, because it forces you to make quicker decisions. The sad part is that these songs were written in a very spontaneous and cathartic way, very quickly for being me. Usually I spend a lot of time writing; I work a lot on the details. This time, though, everything was very rough and very spontaneous, so I was hoping to recreate this feeling in the studio but it was absolutely not the case because we were thinking a lot. In the end, it sounds really, really good. Some people have said it’s one of the biggest sounds we’ve ever done, that it’s really large and powerful. That’s good, in the end.
Speaking on a more holistic level, what recurring themes are presented through Spiritual Instinct’s lyrics, and how do they intertwine with the anguished passion of its sonic motifs and structures? How does the album’s message of cleansing and catharsis compare with that of Alcest’s overall body of work?
It’s almost like a concept record about my spiritual journey that I’ve had since I was a kid. I lived through a sort of special experience when I was a kid, something very spiritual that left a big mark on me; that’s why I decided to create Alcest when I was a teenager, to be able to speak about all of this. Spirituality has been a very big part of my life. During the last tour for Kodama, we were working like crazy. I think I kind of lost touch with myself, and I had lost touch with this side of me, and I really missed it and felt very down. That’s how I had this “instinct” word coming to me, because I realized that spirituality became instinctive for me, something I need in my life. I can’t explain why, but it’s a need as strong as any other instinctive need that our bodies have, and I just can’t live without it. What a spiritual journey is is mostly accepting yourself for who you are, exactly who you are without trying to hide anything or to seem like a happier person than you are. I think I tried to escape my demons for a while, and lately they grew so much that there was no way to deny them anymore because I started to write these songs, I realized that they had a lot of anger and a lot of darkness, in a way. That’s a part of my journey at this point: I need to accept myself better and I need to face these demons if I want to grow in my life, if I want to reach a higher step.
I wanted to ask about your use of the Sphinx on the record’s cover art; you had stated that the Sphinx here represents the duality between the spiritual and feral aspects within mankind. As you observe yourself battling demons and trying to balance spirituality in your own life, what is your goal in utilizing that archetype, and how have you crafted this record to communicate these ideas of dualism?
The goal is to find the harmony between my higher, otherworldly spiritual side and my more down-to-earth, anxious, angry side. It’s very cliché, but it’s the battle between the light and the darkness and everything that’s in-between, all the different shades. As I said, I had this spiritual experience when I was younger and it’s always made me feel a little bit disconnected, like an outsider. It’s very difficult to make some space in my down-to-earth life for this thing, and I try to find a harmony with my down-to-earth self, with all the darkness and the anxiety that comes with it, and the side of me that always wants to reach the higher side. That’s what the Sphinx is: you’ve got the very noble face and the wings, but you’ve also got the fangs and the animal legs -- it’s a contrast. That’s something that you can hear in the music. For example, the most obvious thing is the contrast between the clean vocals and the harsh vocals. You’ve got a lot of fragility, almost something crystal clear in the clean vocals, yet the harsh vocals are really extreme, they’re really intense screams. That’s my more anguished side, if I may say so.
In your perspective, what is the greatest evolution, or perhaps simply the greatest difference between Spiritual Instinct and the records that precede it?
There is something people like about us, and it’s also something we like about ourselves which is the fact that we keep the Alcest touch -- this thing that makes us Alcest -- but every time we sound different. We have six records, but I think all the records sound quite different. I mean, not completely -- there is just one record that is very different, Shelter, because we took away all the metal elements. I have this single concept that goes into this band -- bringing a piece of this otherworldly place into this world -- but every time I do it from a different angle, a different perspective. I evolve as a person in this life and I go through different phases, and as I said, it’s a real journey. It’s something that’s followed me through so many years.
Lately we’ve been more into the production side of things, that’s something that I like that we’ve developed lately. The first albums were very much distortion or clean sound, and that was it. Now on the newer records, we really try to create a wider pallet of sounds. But I would say every album is its own little journey: it’s very different from the others, but it’s still very Alcest because it’s completely disconnected from this world, in a way.
Spiritual Instinct releases Friday via Nuclear Blast.