In Celtic legend, the hero Oisin meets a fairy woman called Niamh Chinn Óir, who falls in love with him instantly and takes him back to her home in Tir na nÓg, a land of youth and eternal happiness. After a few years of bliss, Oisin gets homesick. On Niamh’s white horse he returns to Ireland — where 300 years have passed. As long as he remains on the horse, he’s fine, but an accident throws him to the ground. The centuries immediately catch up to him, and he dies.

Alcest has always been a vehicle for band leader Neige’s own experiences with a pearly otherworld he experienced as a child. In the course of four albums and an EP, he has lifted a candle into that world, but always kept a foot in this one. That was especially true on 2010’s Écailles de Lune, where Neige balanced his resplendent melodies with harsh vocals and blastbeats. In an interview that same year, he told That’s How Kids Die, “In some moments it’s like if I was a stranger here, having the sensation a non-human part of my soul is screaming inside me to be back in the world he belongs to.”

On Shelter, it’s clear he has completely crossed over. This time, Neige teamed up with Sigur Rós producer Birgir Jón Birgisson, whose knack for giving music weightlessness is all over the album. After the slow drumbeats and choral sweeps that open “Wings” — reminiscent of mid-period In the Nursery — “Opale” bursts open like a piñata full of sunrises, an ebullience that resurfaces on “La Nuit Marche Avec Moi” and the title track. It’s a more sophisticated realization of the joy saturating some of Alcest’s earlier work, particularly “Solar Song” and “Beings of Light.”

There is melancholy here, too, on the chiming “L’Eveil Des Muses,” which suggests that awakening the muses is not an altogether comfortable affair. The 10-minute closer, “Délivrance,” evokes the sorrow and surrender of “Sur L'Océan Couleur de Fer,” but with a choir of Valinor-esque voices pushing away troubled guitars that crackle and fade like static from an Earthly radio station whose signal has failed.

It would be too easy to compare “Shelter” to an elusive dream or a psychedelic honeymoon in Tir na nÓg. It’s an album that wraps you up like eiderdown, warm and fairy-soft, indulging the impulse to put time on hold. Neige is no longer screaming to return to that childhood realm, but the danger of consummation — and of all that weightlessness — is that these songs breeze past, refusing to linger long in this bloody world.

Shelter comes out on January 17 via Prophecy Productions.

— Beth Winegarner



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