Alcest – Spiritual Instinct – Album Review

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Artist: Alcest

Album Title: Spiritual Instinct

Label: Nuclear Blast

Date of Release: 25 October 2019

I have been a long-term admirer and fan of Alcest; their blend of black metal and shoegaze struck an early chord with me and I’ve loved them ever since. I’ve always been a sucker for heavy music that’s extreme but which is also very beautiful with plenty of melody and atmosphere, so it’s no surprise that Alcest found favour with me. The fact that they also imbue their music with emotion, often fragile and poignant, only adds to the affection that I feel for the French outfit.

Alcest, led by multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and principle songwriter Neige, and ably assisted by drummer Winterhalter, have never been ones to stick to a formula however and so, with each release, you wonder just what you’re going to get. At the core of Alcest’s sound there has always been strong melody but they have dabbled from album to album with differing levels of heaviness, subtle changes in influences and flirtations with other genres. For example, ‘Shelter’ (2014) almost abandoned any pretence of heavy metal in favour of a more ambient delivery.

‘Kodama’ saw a return to heavier climes and so I wondered what might face us with ‘Spiritual Instinct’. My pondering was heightened due to the eyebrow-raising switch of record labels. An increasingly important name in the underground, this is the first album by Alcest to be released by the biggest metal-oriented record label on the planet, Nuclear Blast. I sensed a few twitches from the band’s faithful and I shared them a little.

The good news is that the move to their new home has not dulled their creativity, their talent, their quality or their integrity. Not that I really thought that it would, mind you, because neither the band or the label are like that. Still, it’s nice to be able to report the obvious.

I am, however, going to begin with a slight gripe. Six songs and a running time of 41 minutes. It must always be a case of quality over quantity of course but am I the only one who thinks that ‘Spiritual Instinct’ is a little on the meagre side? I might be alone here but I have to be honest and say that I crave just one more song. Brutal death metal albums can be this short, but a band like Alcest? I just want a little more, sorry.

With that small temper tantrum out of the way, let’s get on with the music that features on album number six. On that score, there is almost nothing to moan about.

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Credit: Andy Julia

A rumbling bassline, feedback and a repetitive guitar note usher in the opener ‘Les Jardins De Minuit’ but before long, it develops into a lovely melody joined by almost ethereal vocals. And then, all of a sudden, the track explodes into a black metal frenzy of breakneck drumming from Winterhalter, fast-picked guitars before settling down a little into more mid-tempo territory with a bright and engaging melody. The slightly schizophrenic song sways back and forth between all-out attack and more epic-sounding melody but what I like is the way in which the bulk of the vocals are sung by Neige in his clean, almost angelic manner, softening the tumult around him and creating a warmer counterpoint to the venomous, raspy screams that emerge in places.

This is definitely a powerful opening statement, but one that isn’t confined to just the first song; indeed, ‘Spritual Instinct’ is arguably the ‘heaviest’ that the band has sounded for a number of years. ‘Protection’ might be a shorter and more instantly accessible song thanks to some beautiful melodies and simpler framework, but within are some moments of all-out ferocity that only serve to make the melodies that much stronger and more beguiling. There’s a section around the midpoint where the song threatens to spiral out of control but it is expertly pulled back into line by a return to the stomping and commanding central melody.

The intro to ‘Sapphire’ is just marvellous, as a delicate melody is punctuated by some minimalist drumming that makes an irresistible impact. There’s a vaguely more mainstream feel to the song but the bottom line is that it is simply an elegant and beautiful piece of music with an epic feel despite its relatively short length.

On the other hand, ‘L’Île Des Morts’ is the longest track on the record at just shy of ten minutes. And yet it never seems that long, as it contains enough variety as well as light and shade to keep the listener’s attention throughout. The use of dynamics is never more prominent than at the 5:40 point, where some energetic extreme metal landscapes are abruptly replaced by a section of poignant, introspective minimalism, where a delicately-created guitar melody lurks just above the surface of the oppressive darkness into which we have been unwittingly plunged.

One of my favourite tracks has to be ‘Le Miroir’. Neige’s vocals are scarce and haunting when they do appear but nevertheless, this song carries with it such a wonderfully brittle and thought-provoking essence that it cannot be ignored. The melodies, which invoke a tribal, folk-like atmospheres are once again out of the very top draw, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I can imagine a lone figure standing on a hillside with the wind whipping the hair across their face, surveying the harsh and unforgiving landscape beyond.

Last up is the title track, as the album all-too-soon draws to a close. However, it is completed in fine fashion in a manner thoroughly befitting ‘Spiritual Instinct’. Huge swathes of melody crash into a metallic onslaught one minute whilst being caressed by gentler and quieter soundscapes the next.

‘Spiritual Instinct’ is most certainly the heaviest that the French duo have sounded for a long time. It is almost as if they have come out fighting, ready to show those who doubted their move to Nuclear Blast that they don’t intend to delve into the mainstream just yet. Admittedly, their move will bring them a new audience but when the music is this good, who can argue with that? I often bemoan the fact that the bands I like never seem to get the exposure they deserve, so it is nice to see Alcest get some recognition for the quality music they seem to effortlessly create. Consider ‘Spiritual Instinct’ yet another strong addition to an already impressive back catalogue. Long may it continue.

The Score of Much Metal: 91%

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others from 2019:

Port Noir – The New Routine
Nile – Vile Nilotic Rites
Ray Alder – What The Water Wants
Borknagar – True North
Leprous – Pitfalls
Myrath – Shehili
Prehistoric Animals – Consider It A Work Of Art
Voyager – Colours In The Sun
Odd Logic – Last Watch Of The Nightingale
Avandra – Descender
Darkwater – Human
ZW Band / Zonder Wehrkamp – If It’s Real
Teramaze – Are We Soldiers
Rendezvous Point – Universal Chaos
Our Destiny – Awakening
Evergrey – The Atlantic

You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here:

2018 reviews
2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

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