REVIEW: ALCEST – “Kodama”
Alcest, the pioneering post-metal/blackgaze band from France is back with ‘Kodama’ (translates from Japanese as “tree spirit” or “echo”) after a brief two year absence. I was quite excited to hear that they had a new album coming out, and more excited still when I learned that Neige (vocals, guitars, bass, and keys) was returning to his more black metal infused roots. I mention Neige specifically as even though Winterhalter (drums) is an official member, Alcest is Neige’s own unique creation, and one he has been at work on since the tender age of fourteen. He writes the music, lyrics, and forms the concept –historically his expression of visions from his youth contacting a far off country or Fairy Land. Together they (along with live members for shows) have crafted a rich and beautiful discography of music that is part shoegaze, part post-metal, with a healthy dose of black metal as well. Since gaining in popularity, the scene has seen many rip-offs, but none do it as well as Alcest have over the past decade.
Which brings us back to ‘Kodama’. I’ll say quickly that I found 2014’s ‘Shelter’ to be quite disappointing. That album focused solidly on the shoegaze element of their sound; it was a very light album, almost poppy in nature. I think it was actually rather boring, truth be told. With ‘Kodama’ however Neige deliberately wanted to go in a heavier and darker direction. The artwork hinted at this even before any music was released. The album is also a concept album, dealing with the relationships between mankind and nature, and was inspired by Japanese culture, and specifically Hayao Miyazaki’s film ‘Princess Mononoke.’ Of course unless you speak French far better than I do, you have to interpret all this by the music and vocals alone. Thankfully Neige’s music and vocal work is very expressive, and the music this time even more so than on some previous albums.
The album starts with the title track, and the listener is immediately greeted by Alcest’s signature sound, it’s full, melodic, heavy, and as always very beautiful. And typical of shoegaze, the elements blur and bend together into a wall of sound. The result is very expressive, and very spiritual. Neige’s guitar work is very recognizable, as is his composition style, and the balance between the light and dreamy elements and the heavier elements are once again perfectly balanced and walked between. The second track, “Éclosion,” starts similarly to the previous, but soon we’re treated to the heavier, more aggressive black metal style and screams which Alcest is so well regarded for. The difference between the screaming style of Neige and other vocalists who use black metal screams is that even while the screams are aggressive and wild, they are never negative, Alcest is deliberately a positive and uplifting band, and Neige has spoken in past interviews over his disappointment that people take his screams as anger or negativity when in reality they’re most often an expression of ecstasy. In other words trve kvlt black metal fans will do well to steer clear of their music, and good riddance.
‘Kodama’ continues with this pattern through the rest of the short (42 minute) album. The mix of the two styles, and the wonderful juxtaposition of them that was so painfully missing from ‘Shelter’ run through several other songs as well, perhaps highlighted best by “Oiseaux de proie” the second to last track, which was also the first single from the album. I know I wasn’t the only fan to smile when I first heard it and be pleased to see the light and heavy balance be brought back in such a satisfying way.
The only small complaint I have after repeated listens is that while it’s great to hear Alcest return to a balance of their signature sound (rather than the one side we got with their last album) is they don’t really give the listener anything they haven’t already heard on earlier albums such as ‘Écailles de Lune’ or ‘Les Voyages de l’Âme.’ I would have liked to have heard them take more risks and try or add something new to their already well established sound. But perhaps I’m simply being unnecessarily critical. Not every band has to, or even should, change their basic sound and approach, particularly when they set the bar for how it should sound. Neige has been remarkably consistent with his vision and the quality of it for a long time now, and I listen to Alcest to hear his vision of the world, not mine.
To reiterate, ‘Kodama’ is a welcome and triumphant return to the sounds and style that Alcest fans have come to love and expect. And it takes the listener on a journey out of themselves to places they perhaps never knew existed, a place of beauty and healing. Any fan of the band should be very pleased with this release, and it’s as good as any of their early releases as an introduction to their sound. Neige and Winterhalter have joined together and put out a beautiful and solid release. And one that deserves repeated listens.