Sylvaine – ‘Wistful’ (Album Premiere)
My relationship with "blackgaze" has been, well, it's been tumultuous. There was a good while where I was genuinely obsessed, which happened to coincide with the microgenre's strongest universal sense of songwriting prowess. Velvet Cacoon's syrupy perfection aside, the dynamic orchestration of Alcest's Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde and our dearly departed Amesoeurs's pop inflection were ideals which were quickly lost in the earliest parts of this decade. I guess favoring meandering textures over stirring, catchy songwriting left me jaded, and the genre has since stagnated in a pool of delay pedals, big chords, and infinite layers of indulgent harmony. As much as I disliked newer blackgaze's limitless, directionless indulgence, there was still an underlying longing for those catchy, guided, surprisingly recent glory days.
Recent Season of Mist signee Sylvaine, otherwise known as solo musician Kathrine Shepard, taps into that punctuated, now "classic" sound. Wistful, which features Alcest and Amesoeurs mastermind Stephane "Neige" Paut on drum duties, bridges the catchy, melodious, and sweeping pop sounds of shoegaze with black metal's bittersweet despair - a colorful, sunlit haze of swirling sound and nostalgic buzz. Owing just as much to bands like The Chameleons and even Third Eye Blind (and I'm sure I will catch flak for citing the latter) as much as the aforementioned Alcest and Amesoeurs, Sylvaine's lush, upbeat-with-a-downward-glance "blackgaze" is this genre's necessary pop revival . . . and that's just it. That is what was missing. Blackgaze is at its strongest when pop sensibility and thick atmosphere are mixed in equal parts. Here's to hoping more artists will find inspiration Sylvaine's brief trip to a recent past and follow in her footsteps. We deserve that much.
Wistful is out Friday, May 13th (spooky), on Season of Mist. Scroll down for an exclusive listen to the full album with a track-by-track album breakdown by Katherine Shepard.
“Delusions” is the longest piece of the album, featuring a lot of the different elements from the other songs, sound wise, style wise and also emotionally, something that made it the natural choice for the opener of “Wistful”. The song is very dynamic, breathing and moving between the parts in a very natural way, which is important to keep the listener captivated thru the whole piece. I really wanted to start the whole album in a very minimalistic way, to build the tension, little by little, so I therefore decided to make the first part of the intro an a cappella vocal part. I wanted the listener to feel like they were in a forest, under the moonlight, beginning to carry out some sort of ancient ritual. Sounds very cheesy when you write it indeed, but I think the intro does have a bit of this impression and the dark wave style I was looking for. “Delusions” takes an emotional path that ranges from a more hopeful state, to a state of realization, where the brutal world we live in becomes reality towards the grand end of the song. The song was recorded in Drudenhaus, France, during May 2015, with Neige behind the drumkit, something I think brought a new, very positive aspect to the song.
“Earthbound” was the last track written for Wistful. The composition process of this one was a bit different than the others, in that I decided what I wanted to make in advance and then tried to write based on that. The song had to be up-tempo, energetic, 4/4 time signature and catchy. I wasn’t sure it would work to write like that, as I usually compose in a very spontaneous way, never forcing anything, but for this song I am very happy that I did! The process of creating it was really fast in the end, with the different parts and layers falling into place in a very evident and natural way. The lyrics of “Earthbound” reflect a more aggressive approach to the subjects that tend to be spoken about in Sylvaine, something you’ll also notice in the sound of the song. For the sound, I wanted to keep the distortion guitars really dirty and gritty for the track, to make the difference between the clean elements and the harsh ones even more extreme. The drumming of Neige on this track truly added something exceptional to the feel, making it even more groovy and intense, underlining the aggressive nature of the song even more than I would have hoped for. Without his drumming touch, “Earthbound” definitely wouldn’t have been the same, not turning into the “punch in the face” it manifests as on the record. Probably one of the catchiest songs on the album, “Earthbound” is one of my unexpected favorites and one of the songs I can’t wait to play live!
“A Ghost Trapped In Limbo” is one of the tracks on the album that I feel has a strong connection with my first album Silent Chamber, Noisy Heart. It represents the link between “the new” and “the old” in the Sylvaine sound for me. It was one of the first songs written for the album and I recorded it myself in late 2014, resulting in a slight different sound from the 3 tracks I recorded at Drudenhaus in 2015. I was using a similar setup for the recording of all the instruments as on my first album. For the guitars I was using an Orange TH30 Combo for both distorted and clean sounds, recorded with 4 different mics; Shure SM57 for the body of the sound, Sennheiser 421 for the higher frequencies and clarity, Royer 121 for the warmth and low frequencies and an AKG C414 as a room mic, which we tended to either mute or use for extreme effects during the mixing stage. My pedal setup is in general very simple, which was also the case for this recording, only using a few pedals; Proco Rat, Boss OD-2, TC Electronics Hall of Fame, Strymon Big Sky and Boss DD3. “A Ghost Trapped In Limbo” is one of the few songs on the album that doesn’t lyrically speak about the “main theme” of this record, but rather about the feeling of always putting yourself in the same, bad situations over and over again, never learning from your mistakes or being hurt. The feeling of never getting a break from the lurking sense of melancholy, even when life is seemingly good.
“Saudade” or “the dirge” as I’m always calling it [Jon's note: "Saudade" is one of my favorite, untranslatable words. Read more about it here.], is very minimalistic and probably the most experimental track on Wistful. Between my father’s cycling, marching drum pattern, the slow evolving melodies and repeating guitar riffs, the song really has this hypnotic flow to it. It comes off as a tune of mourning, with the dark atmospheres that are created and the over all sensibilities that are conveyed. The lyrics of the track are very short, but probably one of my favorites on the album, as they speak about longing to go home in a spiritual sense, being comforted by being in nature, where the veil between the different realms are at it’s thinnest. Short lyrics, but right to the point and very touching to me.
“In The Wake Of Moments Passed By” is a song I very much appreciate now, but that I used to have a strong love/hate relationship with as I was making it. It took a long time for me to find the natural structure for the song and to make it work in the best possible way, making it one of the longest processes of writing for Wistful. For this one I wanted to create a super ethereal track, with a lot of vocal and guitar layers, making it a dense, lush and atmospheric piece. At the same time, I wanted to push the contrast between the dreamy layers and the harsh guitars and vocals further, making the range between the two different elements more extreme than on some of the other songs on the album. Like on the title track of the record, “In The Wake of Moments Passed By” also has a slow evolving ending, that just repeats and builds, with new layers and elements being added gradually, until it become this epic wall-of-sound entity at the very end, before it goes down to almost nothing with just a few small, guitar melodies in the outro. The drums for this song were recorded twice actually, as my father did a quick version of it first, which was later re-recorded by Neige in Drudenhaus in 2015 due to lack of time in my first studio session in 2014. I wrote the drum patterns myself, but think Neige added a nice, more personal touch to it, something that made the track more interesting in the end.
“Like A Moth To A Flame is another track on Wistful that is reminiscent of my first album. It has a more typical “verse-chorus” structure, as well as a more “pop” sound. Personally, I adore the vocal parts in the choruses, with all the different layers creating a sort of choir as the main vocal part. I wanted to use this type of choir effect more for Wistful than on my first album, as you can also hear on this track. It really expresses a strong sense of melancholy and underlines the relentless feeling you get from the lyrics of the song. The choirs for this song were written very quickly, but I remember it took me ages to find the main vocal line of the verses. I have no idea why, but the melody was not apparent to me at all when I first started to work on the vocal parts, leading me to try out dozens of different melody lines before ending up with the one you can hear on the record today.
“Wistful” was the track that captivated the birth of this second album. It was written early on and completely embodied everything I’m trying to convey with Sylvaine. That is also why I decided to name the album after this track, as I feel even the title captures the essence of not only the second album, but also Sylvaine as a project. This might be the song I wrote that is my favorite out of all of my creations. This song is so special to me, making me feel exactly the same things that I did when I created it when I listen to it today, something I expect it to keep on doing in the future as well. The song expresses something so pure, so innocent, yet so incredibly strong, frustrated and hopeless. To me, this song represents the feeling of being homesick in a spiritual sense, not feeling like you belong to this place and longing to go back to the peaceful existence we have in this other “home”. The songs also displays the same minimalistic, cyclic patterns as in “Saudade”, but I think this one is even more mesmerizing, with the quite epic end that just repeats into infinity. I wanted to simulate a choir for the end, with many vocals layers, after being inspired by a choir performance I heard during the Christmas of 2014. For the end, I also incorporated a string quartet, which came to life thanks to the great Thibault Guichard and Coralie Louarnika. Wistful will always have a special place in my heart and I truly, truly hope I will be able to create something as meaningful again in the future.