French shoegazing metalheads Alcest began in earnest with Le Secret, an EP of raw black metal played in a major key, thus incorporating hope into music where there’s usually none. It was an odd juxtaposition, but an effective one: you would think black metal would collapse if you removed its grouchy demeanor, but the band proved that it was still viable, if not revelatory. Souvenirs d’un autre monde, its follow-up, really wasn’t metal at all, save the heavy guitars and one instance of what would have to be the kindest blastbeat in metal history (on “Printemps Emeraude”). Écailles de Lune, the band’s latest, is the valley between the two, combining rich Cure- and My Bloody Valentine-like melodies and frothy waves of guitar with harsh black metal screams and rapid-fire blastbeats. But though it may sound gimmicky, main instrumentalist and songwriter Neige manages to sew the two together in the most natural manner possible, providing not one moment of stylistic whiplash throughout the album’s forty-two minutes. Once a member of scummy French raw black metallers Peste Noire, he’s clearly a man who knows his grimness. But Écailles de Lune proves that that’s not where his heart is, and Neige simply uses of whatever music he likes — metal or not — to best replicate for us the portrait on the inside of his skull.

Upon first listen, the album sounds remarkably like Neige’s last project, post-punk/black metal collective Amesoeurs: the production is more raw than Alcest’s last album, and the black metal portions are more straightforward. Or so one may think. Part of me can’t recommend Alcest to those with an aversion to black metal, but another part knows that the beauty of which the band is capable supersedes it, and fans of Catherine Wheel or early New Order may not find them particularly offensive. The two part title track — which takes up almost half the album’s running time — volleys back and forth between shoegazy walls of guitars and propulsive riffing. “Part II” is where the black metal vocals come in; after a few listens, though, one forgets they’re there as they become a natural occurrence as opposed to a puzzling decision. “Percées de lumière” further hammers this point home (as those who heard it as a part of the band’s split with Les Discrets can attest to). It’s a brilliantly compact single displaying the band’s loves (dream-pop guitar parts recast as black metal arpeggios, lush post-rock sections, ethereal female vocals) and potential. Of course, when the band goes off the map — like on “Solar Song”‘s brilliantly layered vocal harmonies atop a guitar part that evokes what a sunrise would most likely sound like — they’re just as interesting, hinting that there’s plenty of depth to be found in Neige’s inner world, and we’re just getting started.

Écailles de Lune slips up majorly on its closing track: “Sur L’Océan Couleur De Fer” is eight minutes of moaning on top of a lonely guitar arpeggio (even “Solar Song” has drums) that sort of wanders around, never arriving at a conclusion. But perhaps this is the price to pay for experimentation (the root of the word itself hints at failure), or maybe the price of Neige working on his own without a proper editor in a songwriting partner. But it’s a relatively small chunk of the already-great whole of the band’s catalog, at once deliberately constructed and versatile. With France quickly becoming the home to disturbing/amazing black metal (Deathspell Omega, Merrimack) and beefy, powerful, MetalSucks boner-inducing metal (Gojira), Alcest is another addition in a growing company of refreshingly forward thinking Gallic bands. Like many of us couldn’t think the land of berets and Amelie could provide some of the most solid metal being currently produced, who would have thought a waify guy could so ably infuse black metal into songs about his self-described fantasyworld known as “Fairyland?” Your unkempt guards of all that’s brutal and true may argue they’re not metal at all. But that doesn’t stop the band from being one of the most interesting metal (or, sigh, “metal”) acts going today.

(3 1/2 out of 5 horns)


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