Far be it for me to begrudge Alcest’s steady slide down the decibel scale, what with Neige having long since disavowed his blacker musical tendencies that once saw him stalking caves with the likes of Mortifera and Peste Noire, but at this rate we can safely assume that Alcest will release an album of complete silence by, say, 2017. As I’m typing this I can hear the distinct falsetto of Bon Iver blaring from my landlady’s daughter’s bedroom window and it’s shocking to realize how much more oomph it has than what is presented on Shelter.
While it’s true that Alcest was never intended as a musical vehicle through which Neige could channel his (black) metal inclinations – the aforementioned bands as well as the now sadly defunct Amesoeurs filled that role to great effect – but even so it’s hard for me to come to grips with just how nondescript his main band’s music had become. As each new Alcest release had gotten more and more mellow, so too genre tags had to be readjusted and reshuffled, from ‘post-black metal’ to ‘blackgaze’ to the currently in vogue ‘dreampop’. Whilst the more anally retentive among us fidget with semantics I’m more concerned with whether I should grab a bottle of Ritalin or a comfy pillow.
For the sake of clarity, let me state that I was a HUGE fan of Alcest when the masterful Souvenirs d’un autre monde was released (an album to which I assigned a perfect rating and still listen to on a regular basis). That album resonated with me on a deeply personal level, as did the follow-up Écailles de lune, but a few red lights started going off with Les voyages de l’âme. The domineering happiness and unassuming ‘chill out’ moments that littered said album have been taken to an even more prominent level on Shelter, an album devoid of even an arbitrary sense of angst or power. A future split with M83 seems like a distinct possibility at this point.
Stripped of any sense of drama, the songs bleed into one another with little to no ebb or flow. No swell and release means no catharsis. No peaks, no valleys – just one straight line plateau. As mentioned earlier, the mood is resolutely chipper throughout and in true ‘dreampop’ fashion the vocals of Neige are so low in the mix that they effectively become a distant afterthought. A few highlights punctuate the incessant blandness however, with “Opale” featuring lovely female backing vocals, a solid beat and a bevy of swirling melodies that, even though too bright, do imbue the song with a sense of class. “L'eveil des muses” is mostly instrumental but does a good job of conjuring up a vaguely suspenseful Godspeed You! Black Emperor vibe at times. The title track isn’t too bad either, and while the melodies flit in and out without leaving much of an impression Neige’s vocals sound significantly more assured on this particular number.
Three decent tracks and eight forgettable ones a good album do not make. Sure, fanboys will continue laud the hymnal, ethereal and elegiac nature of the album. That’s fine. I, however, will remain perched atop my little soapbox reminding y’all that these elements mean nothing if not offset by at least a modicum of drama or darkness.
(Online January 7, 2014)