October 23, 2019 Alcest – Spiritual Instinct (Album Review)
French masters of desolation Alcest are set to release Spiritual Instinct on Friday, October 25th. Their sixth album, Spiritual Instinct will mark three years since Kodama and also marks the outfit’s first release for their new label, Nuclear Blast. Centered around driving force and Multi-Instrumentalist Neige (Stéphane Paut), ably flanked by Winterhalter (Jean Deflandre) on drums and percussion, Alcest combine the bleak desolation of Black Metal, the quiet emotion of Shoegaze, and the brutal desperation and technical wizardry of Post-Metal.
Looking back, Alcest shares a long, somewhat complicated history with Gothic outfit Peste Noire (“black plague”); both outfits formed around 2000, and both Neige and Winterhalter were both members at a point, along with former Bassist Argoth, and the Alcest lineup also included Peste Noire main force Aegnor for a brief spell. Neige—from the French for “snow”—eventually emerged from the fog and brought Alcest to the forefront. He started with Souvenirs d’un autre monde in 2007, an album he crafted alone. Then, Winterhalter joined ahead of 2010’s Écailles de Lune, which was followed in two-year gaps leading into 2012’s Les Voyages de l’ me, 2014’s Shelter, and 2016’s Kodama.
Which leads us to to the dense, riff-heavy Spiritual Instinct starting immediately with a think bass and drum opening for “Les Jardins De Minuit.” Heavy, punchy bass is quickly apparent and is mixed much more prominently that would be expected for this mix of genres. From here the album almost plays too quickly, not in a brief, forgettable way, but rather, with a brisk determination, one which leaves the listener tripping over their shoes in search of more. In fact, the abrupt closing of “Spiritual Instinct” cements this feeling.
There is “L’Ile Des Morts,” which translates to the island of the dead, clocking in just over nine minutes, and containing all of the pain and anguish one would expect for a combination of that title and that run time. Whether the titular inspiration comes from the actual island, which sits off the severe northwest corner/peninsula of Metropolitan France, or more abstract ideas, such as the series of paintings by Swiss Artist Arnold Böcklin, which inspired the poem of the same name by Russian Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, the concepts of loneliness and death are prevalent throughout the track, deadened only slightly by the techno beat that starts the track and carries through in the background.
Then there is “Sapphire,” which is almost chipper, at least by comparison to its neighbors, and starts with a much subtler, quieter guitar riff, rather than the choppy anger of “Protection” or the bass-driven grind of “Les Jardins De Minuit.” The middle portions of the track showcase the band’s Post-Metal leanings, and perhaps only the vocals—either the haunting choral aspects to the near-spoken verses—belie the blacker elements of the band’s makeup.
A stripped, muffled cadence surrounds “Le Miroir” with rhythmic drums backing the low, stifled vocals, which blend almost entirely with the string work that carries the majority of the track. Lastly, the aforementioned title-track closes the album, and with a few minutes left, a distinct shift in guitar tone appears, with the vocals lightening a bit to match the fresher mood. The stern conclusion of the track and album, mentioned earlier, is just as jarring during subsequent listens as it is the first time.
Overall, forty dreary minutes spread across a mere six tracks, never shorter than five minutes (“Le Miroir” and “Sapphire”) or much past nine (“L’Ile Des Morts”). That in mind, the strength lies in the duality alluded to by Neige—for every moment of perceived brightness or dawn, there are moments of sheer pain and agony. Once again, Neige and Winterhalter have mixed seemingly disparate genres, while staying true to each individually. Spiritual Instinct brings bright spots of joy in an otherwise dark time, and listeners can take some warmth from the idea that others, elsewhere, are enjoying this same album. That is why Cryptic Rock gives this album 4 out of 5 stars.