Alcest – Les Voyages de l'Âme - 4/5
With my MP3 player not fully updated – guess by the last two artists just how much of my music collection managed to be transferred before I finally got around to doing it properly – my attention found it's way to Alcest, a band I knew of but never really paid much attention to, and I don't entirely know why I had a copy of their latest at all, but I'm rather glad I did. See, they – or indeed 'he,' given that this is a one man project after all – are often referred to as a 'Post-Black Metal' or “Blackgaze” band as the genre is oft called, but it seems curious that the artists I'm mostly inclined to compare it to play different genres entirely; Carved in Stone (Folk) and their gentle acoustic guitar work; Agalloch's (Folk/Dark Metal) use of simple lines and thick, slowly shifting backing work to carve weave their atmospheric magic; even the recently reviewed Thy Catafalque (Avant-Garde Metal) shares many similarities. I don't deny the genre fits, there are after all many of the staples that you would expect from a combination of the two genres; a strong atmosphere, the odd growl, occasional tremolo picking and psychedelic lines, but the way it's all been pieced together, well it's the last thing I would have expected, and the term seems merely 'what fits best.'
Instead of trying to rely on genre terms that don't quite fit, I'll point to the one link that all those artists have in common, the atmosphere. This is really what the purpose is here, the instrumentation and techniques employed are little more than a means to an end, and it is this very specific tone that he spends the best part of an hour trying to convey that takes precedence. It's certainly got an earthen, naturalistic quality to it all; that folk-like sense of being surrounded in nature in all its wild glory, but being powerless against it's laws, all that's left is to simply sit back and admire it's beauty and let what will happen happen, accepting your fate whatever comes. There is also a sense of an underlying bleak nature, but it's never a chaotic depression or to the extreme of the overwhelming darkness presented in most Black Metal. Rather it falls again on a sense of accepting the worst and hope for the future; the light shining through the trees, offering if not answers then consolation and comfort. If all this sounds a touch religious then the ethereal and choral vocals will do little to convince you otherwise, but it's certainly like no religion I've uncovered. There is often little in the way of peaks and troughs; no slow build-ups to crescendo's, though certainly as time passes the music itself subtly shifts to present a new scene to be observed. It's remarkably consistent but also monotone, and even though I know why that this is the case, it can still present itself as being problematic at times.
There is a little understanding that's required to fully appreciate what he's trying to accomplish with this project, and when you do it all makes sense. The title literally translates as “The Voyage of the Soul,” and that does a lot to start you on your way; that there is very little variation in the album is intentional. It's a piece that I still think is perhaps better suited to the term Ambient, despite the unconventional instrumentation and style, because it's an attempt of communicating an image; a very specific location that the artist has in his mind and is trying to create and convey in his work. Without realising this it's little more than a curiosity, but with this knowledge in place it all suddenly fits; the veil is lifted and you see the work for what it really is. It may never become an album I'll play on a regular basis, but every so often, when I've had a difficult day, I'll let Alcest help whisk me away to his fantasy world filled with magic and mysticism, natural beauty, serenity, and I'll float away to the sonic vibrations. If he never releases another album under this name, it wouldn't matter. With this release he's surely accomplished his goal.