Alcest Channel the Natural World Via Graceful Metal Anthems
Alcest are a complicated band. Their music is heavy, born of France’s black metal underground and evolving into an even bigger and more expansive sound with each release. Yet, as loud and powerful as Alcest’s music can be, it’s also incredibly graceful and ethereal. In fact, on 2014's Shelter, they more or less abandoned metal entirely, instead delivering an album of dream-pop and shoegaze that actually featured an appearance from Neil Halstead of shoegaze legends Slowdive.
With the release of new full-length Kodama, however, Alcest have returned to the more intense and visceral sounds of past albums such as Écailles de Lune and Les Voyages de l’Âme, albeit with a heavy thematic influence from Japanese mythology and animated films. It’s a return to the classic Alcest sound, yet it finds the duo of Neige and Winterhalter exploring a balance of darkness and beauty in an interesting new way. It’s a cathartic and moving piece of music — and most importantly, for those who might have missed the more ferocious side of Alcest, it’s loud.
We spoke to vocalist, songwriter and guitarist Neige about the bigger sound of Kodama, making a record after the Paris attacks of 2015, and the influence of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki.
Kodama, at least in its sound, is a very different record than your last album, Shelter. Was there a stated goal in terms of the direction of the album?
Yeah, because we like to change our songs album after album, and we don’t like to put out the same music. After Shelter — that was very dreamy, ethereal — we were pretty much focused only on the guitars. We wanted to do something way more punchy, and maybe for the first time, actually, we really spent a lot more time on the drums and bass. We wanted to have a very strong rhythm section. And also to bring back the big contrasts. So, the clean parts, but also the very harsh parts. It felt quite natural for us, because I think on Shelter, I really enjoyed myself doing a complete dream-pop, shoegaze record; but for this one, we felt the need to do something a little more personal.
What drew you back to the louder guitar sounds?
We needed to go back to our roots in a way. After Shelter, I kind of lost the connection with our own sound. We really needed to connect again. And also, the times have changed between Shelter and Kodama. Some years have passed, and I guess I changed, too, as a person. We’ve had some really harsh events in France lately, and I think it had kind of an influence on the sound of the record. Obviously, it’s not a depressing record, but it’s a little more angry, and a bit darker. So, it’s a combination of many, many things.
What kind of influence did the recent, tragic events in France have on you as you were making the record?
I had most of the record written when the Paris attacks happened, so I think it had an influence on some of the adjustments in the arrangements. The last track [“Onyx”] was composed in the studio, and it’s very dark. The sound … we wanted to sound angry and have a lot of energy. The drum sound is very natural. There’s a lot of room in it. I guess it had an influence on the kind of horror atmosphere.
I understand that Kodama means “tree spirit.” Can you explain the significance of this idea on the record?
Alcest has always been very inspired by nature, as nature helps me to connect with my deeper side, my more spiritual side. I always got a lot of inspiration from nature. It’s my homage to that. And it also means “echo,” and I think it’s quite cool because the album is kind of echoing our past — you know, our whole sound. Even in the structure for the album, we wanted to do something similar to the first two: five long tracks with one more experimental one at the end. It’s 42 minutes, and our first two were 42 minutes. It’s these little details.
I also understand that the film Princess Mononoke played a role in shaping the narrative of the record. How did you come to discover the film, and what kind of role did it play in the album’s themes?
I was always into animation and Japan. In France, people my age — I’m 31 — we grew up with animation on TV. And it was one of the only countries where the TV programs for kids were Japanese animation. It was very controversial because it was very violent, and these cartoons can be very dark. This is not really the point of animation, but it’s just that, thanks to these things, we discovered Japan. You can see the culture, the social behaviors, the architecture, the food. Everything looked so, so different and so interesting. It’s a different world. And much later, in my teenage years, I heard of Miyazaki and went to the cinema to watch Spirited Away and, wow, I was traumatized in a good way. It left such a big impression on me. I watched all his other movies and I really liked Princess Mononoke.
It goes really well with our times. As we forget more and more what’s around us and focus on ourselves being very self-centered … if we keep on going this way, we’re going to end the world in a few decades, maybe 100, 200 years. It’s interesting, this theme in the movie — the confrontation between nature world and human world — and Miyazaki has this very wise outlook on things, because he never says, "This is the good guy," or "This is the bad guy." It’s very complex. He’s inviting us to live in harmony. And I really love his themes in all his movies. There’s this [contrast] between mortality and ancestral, spiritual and nature. As I live in Paris, this very big city, I always kind of miss nature, so I have this kind of duality in my life. It’s like a lot of things.
How important is it to you to be able to maintain these contrasts — man vs. nature, quiet vs. loud — in your music?
That’s what we were missing in a way [on Shelter]. It was very important to bring back these contrasts in terms of intensity, but also in terms of styles. I don’t think it’s easy to put this record into a box. It really has influences from so many different things. I wanted to sound a little bit alien, a bit strange. And also in the use of vocals, you know, sometimes the fact that I am not even singing real lyrics, but more like improvising to kind of contribute to this weird feeling. But most people don’t understand French anyway, so it doesn’t make a big difference. We really tried to make something diverse, but coherent, which is not easy.
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