Sound — 8
Alcest are a blackgaze (black metal + shoegaze) band from France. The sole guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter goes by Neige for his nom de guerre. For some years, Alcest was his project alone however in 2009 drummer Winterhalter became a full-time member and bassist Indria did too earlier this year. Still, Neige is the guide for the band's evolving sound. Many longtime fans would call 2010's "Écailles de Lune" the band's best album, the one most representative of the blackgaze genre. They would similarly call 2014's "Shelter" the band's worst album because it diverged from blackgaze into much more of a dream pop feel.
Nevertheless, "Shelter" still has some fans, myself included, because of its ethereal qualities; I still listen to it if I have a hard time falling asleep at night. That said, it is easy to see how fans would be disappointed with an album that puts them to sleep when they are used to a rough sound that is closer to that of My Bloody Valentine or Deafheaven.
These fans will be pleased with "Kodama," an album that is supposed to have some sort of Japanese influence but really just sounds like the Alcest of old with the remnants of the "Shelter" clouds put on top. The sound on this album is dark and foreboding. The shoegaze soundscape feels much more like a wall instead of a cloud. And Neige's voice, while plain and plodding as always, feels much more tortured than peaceful.
The weirdest, yet most interesting thing about this album is how Neige achieved the darkness in his sound. One would think that to take a band's sound from dream pop to blackgaze there would have to be more distortion in the guitars or a boomier quality in the drums. But actually, it seems that Alcest's physical sound itself has barely changed from "Shelter" to "Kodama."
The real change is in the songwriting. The songs are longer and have less vocals. There are protracted sections of lightly played guitar without other instruments that give the impression of loneliness. The drums play rhythms that feel kind of off-beat; they don't just play something simple that is easy to count along with. These drum parts don't necessarily mesh with the rhythms that the guitar plays. They add to the feelings of disunity and loneliness that create the overall aura of darkness for the album.
Lyrics — 7
Another factor adding to the darkness of the album is Neige's voice. The return of his growls/screams will surely please longtime fans of the band. Aside from being a nostalgic throwback to the era of five years ago, these growls actually serve a purpose. Neige doesn't growl indiscriminately. Rather, his growls usually come toward the middle or end of the song, acting as the climax or direct prelude to the climax. If most of the album is about feeling lonely, then Neige's growls are the inside of the alone calling for help, asking for a way out.
Of course, all these ideas about loneliness are merely guesswork. All of the album's lyrics are in French. This is a departure from "Shelter" where it seemed like the lyrics were equally split between French and English.
Overall Impression — 7
Taking everything into account, this album is a solid return to the formula that Alcest is known for. The growls have returned, but other than that the base sound has stayed similar to the band's last album, which was for all intents and purposes a journey into dream pop.
It is Neige's songwriting that triggers the fear, the darkness, and the loneliness of the album. The juxtaposition of the relatively benign wall of sound with Neige's songwriting gives this album its flair. To distinguish this album from the rest of Alcest's catalogue, one could look to the bits and pieces of dream pop influence that are still left over. It is these remnants that turn this album's icy, dark abyss of a soundscape into the serene, black rainbow that is left once the storm passes.