Sound — 8
Alcest is a French shoegaze band that, in the studio, is comprised of only one person who goes by the name Neige. The band used to be renowned for its unique mix of shoegaze and black metal. However, over the years, Neige has converted the band into a full-on shoegaze outfit. While I will admit that Alcest presented something unique in its former style, it is still a great band. The band's new shoegaze sound, for me, blends the right amount of shoegaze and mainstream elements to make a pleasant experience that isn't as organic or musically inaccessible as other shoegaze acts' sound, like My Bloody Valentine. With the release of "Shelter," Alcest completes the transformation in a manner most pleasant.
Admittedly, the album is not as creative as Alcest's previous work. There also are not any standout songs except "Opale," the album's previously released single. Aside from these two caveats, big as they are, the album actually sounds pretty darn good. The overall sound of the album has a subtleness to it to the point that the music does not need to be listened to in a vacuum, but rather could survive as an ambient atmosphere.
The guitars are silky smooth in a way that normal shoegaze guitars are not for fear of being too frilly. All of the guitars are either clean or acoustic. The clean guitars also tend to have some chorus, delay, or tremolo applied to them to give them the silky smooth impression. This guitar tone is present on Alcest's earlier work.
But on this album, these guitars take on a central role. They tend to be panned hard left and right giving a stereo effect. This effect serves to divide the various sounds of the album across the stereo spectrum to make the wall of sound for which shoegazing is most famous. Alcest effectively uses this wide stereo spectrum to layer guitars, which, even with very similar tones, manage to stand out individually in the mix. The actual guitar work is somewhat simplistic (and not just because most of the phrases use only the top three strings), tending to present a singular theme that stretches across the whole album and not merely one song, though this is not necessarily a criticism.
This characteristic is imbued in every musical aspect of the album, not just the guitar work, and is somewhat of a double-edged sword. On one hand, there are no standout songs, riffs, or especially memorable moments. On the other hand, the album as a whole is a memorable, cerebral experience. Like Alcest's earlier work, this album feels like floating on a cloud. But with the recent overhaul of their style, the cloud feels much whiter, softer, the music something I could fall asleep to (I mean that in the best, most peaceful of ways).
One thing about this album that is different from other single-direction albums is that this album manages to provide the listener many different emotions with which to interact. There is sheer happiness and sheer sadness present, a contrast I would not have seen coming given the album's uniformity in terms of guitar tones and instruments used.
To discuss these other instruments of the album, the drums rely primarily on cymbals to make their impact. While I have almost no doubt that this would sound tinny and annoying in a live setting, it serves solely to add to the cloudlike atmosphere of the album in this studio setting. The toms, bass, and snare of the drums are audible but they are mixed rather low in the mix and don't make much of an effect, though they do manage to keep time for both the band and the listener.
Most of the bass on this album comes from the bass guitar, since the electric guitars, drums, and vocals are all relatively high-pitched. The bass lines are nothing creative, but they effectively take up the bottom end that the rest of the instruments leave open. Overall, a solid job on this front.
Lyrics — 7
The vocals on this album waver between the standard shoegaze fare of unintelligible, higher pitched vocals and some more conventional ones with easy voices to point out. The lyrics also waver, split about equally between French and English.
As to the performance/delivery, the vocals that associate more with a shoegaze style come out the best. Sometimes, these shoegaze-like vocals actually include lyrics that are intelligible, creating a much more well rounded experience. The vocals that come out more as instrumental chords sound well executed. These vocals add to the texture of the passages in which they are present and are a very important, if subtle ingredient in the sonic soup of the album.
The vocals that do not correlate exactly to shoegaze vocals (those that use very intelligible lyrics) are forgettable, though they do inject a nice change of pace. These are usually sung in a much lower pitch than the shoegaze ones. In addition, they tend to be harmonized and contain much less reverb than any of the other musical elements on the album.
Lyrically, the vocals are either outside my realm of knowledge (in French) or outside my realm of thought (when the music is so ingratiating that I do not want to pay attention to the lyrics). In either language, the lyrics tend to add to the meaning of the song, but really don't have too much of an effect, as the music takes up much the listener's mental capacity.
Overall Impression — 7
Overall, this album is a very pleasant listening experience. I wouldn't call it a leap forward in the creativity or grandeur of music but I would say that it is definitely a solid effort. This album is something worth listening to, an album that will, unlike most, remain on my iPod. What uniqueness this album loses from Alcest's transformation from blackgaze it gains back in the form of varied song structures and contrasting vibes/emotions that are spread across the songs. The style of this album is, in my humble opinion, a much more accessible type of shoegaze that successfully bridges the gap between the underground and the mainstream.
I would say I am happy with Alcest's progression to shoegaze. I also believe that watching Neige's progression to the next album will be interesting given the creative doors that he opened but did not fully exploit in this album. Though this album is best listened to as a whole, if I had to pick a song to listen to first, to get a good feel, I would pick the album's previously released single, "Opale."