Alcest has become one of the monuments of black metal over the course of their 20-year-long career, and are showing no signs of withering on that front. Their 2007 debut,Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde presented a dream-like elegance to black metal, massively different to what else was on offer at the time. With each subsequent release, they morphed into pioneers of what is now known as blackgaze, a blend of black metal and shoegazing, and delved further into both dream-like states with 2014’s Shelter, and emotionally-pulling soundscapes in 2016’s Kodama.
Now, Alcest is about to release their sixth studio album, Spiritual Instinct (pre-order now via Nuclear Blast Records or pre-save and stream here), set to be a darker, more introspective approach to music which has, so far, been mainly uplifting and ethereal. Here’s what the frontman and mastermind behind Alcest, Neige, had to say about the new recording, spirituality, and his personal journey through music.
First off, Alcest has always been linked to spirituality through your songwriting and personal inspirations. I was wondering if you could take about where this first came about, and how it came to be projected through Alcest?
Neige: “Oh, spirituality. You know, the whole project is based upon a spiritual experience that I had when I was younger. I got this experience that I didn’t really know about, and when I became a teenager, many years after, I decided to make a band to be able to speak about it. That was Alcest. I mean, all or records speak more or less about this concept, you know, in a different way every time, and I would say that Spiritual Instinct is a kind of summary of my whole spiritual quest that I’m having since forever, you know? Yeah, that’s the whole story basically!”
“Sapphire” is the latest music video to come from Alcest’s new album, Spiritual Instinct:
You started off musically in a straight-up black metal band, and you’ve gone through multiple different style changes. Spiritual Instinct seems to be more energetic and darker than what you’ve done before, especially given the dream-poppy nature of Shelter. So, how did Spiritual Instinctturn into what it is now?
Neige: “Yeah, it’s a darker record because it’s basically about the inner war, the inner fight, and how to lead a spiritual life and also being very, very human. Having all kinds of flaws and feeling anxious. It’s kind of difficult sometimes to find my balance between my spiritual side and my darker side, you know? There is some kind of fight happening inside me. That’s why the record is darker, because for once I decided to also speak about the darkness that was inside me, and it’s something that I tend to put on the side usually because it was not really the purpose of Alcest when I created it.
I really wanted to focus on the more uplifting side, but I felt that this time it was about right to speak about the darkness and also, you know, I’ve always had the feeling of not belonging to here, you know? Because of this experience I had I always felt very, very different and a bit on the side of things. I kind of miss this place. I was having some visions of what I believe could be like, maybe memories from a previous life somewhere. Yeah, it’s not always easy to manage this thing and having a very normal life. It creates a lot of questions and struggles and stuff, and that’s pretty much what Spiritual Instinct is about.”
What was the writing and recording process like in comparison, on a more personal scale?
Neige: “The composition, it was actually very spontaneous because I think I started to write when we came back from a tour. I hadn’t written music in a while, and it came out really, really fast. The first song, ‘Protection,’ that we’ve just released a few days ago, that was the first song that I’d wrote. Since then, there were a lot of things that I’d never really expressed in Alcest, like these darker things I told you about. They came out in a very brutal way, you know? Yeah, it was really cathartic and great, it was very pleasant to be able to make something out of it.
So yeah, the writing process was really quite spontaneous, but when we went to the studio, that was a different story. It took us a very long time to record. It kind of broke the spontaneity of the music, but we could manage completely fine still, and we are very happy. But yeah, we had some hard times in the studio, I guess.”
Spiritual Instinct will be released on October 25th via Nuclear Blast Records. View the album artwork:
I can imagine if you’re going at a completely different angle emotionally and personally, compared to what you’ve done before, it’s going to bring bumps along the way you haven’t encountered before. How do you feel now that you’ve put it (the darker emotions) on record, so to speak?
Neige: “You mean now that the recording is finished and I have a bit of perspective with the record?”
Yeah, exactly. In reflection.
Neige: “Yeah, I think it’s still a little bit too early maybe. It’s still very, very fresh. I didn’t have the time to digest the fact that the record is finished, and so it’s still a bit early. But, I can already feel I’m not in the same state of mind as I was when I started to write. I can see things in a more clearer way now, it’s a bit clearer in my mind. I wouldn’t say I have all the answers to my questions, but I feel a little more at peace and maybe it’s because of the fact I could express all these things. You know, like the magic process that happens when you make music. Yeah, it’s very cathartic, and you put out things that bother you and you kind of feel better after that.”
I can understand that. When it goes from your mind to a sheet of paper to record it, you can help it make sense and process.
Neige: “Yeah, absolutely.”
Alcest itself has had quite a diverse evolution musically. Through all your albums, there’s a different element or different feelings that come about. How do you feel you’ve developed as an individual throughout Alcest’s life?
Neige: “I would say, you know, Alcest is such a personal project that I can’t really make a difference between me as a person and me as a musician. We are the same person! In some bands, musicians can have a character on stage, or they are like two different persons. With Alcest, I guess we are pretty much the same people when we play music and when we don’t play music, you know? It’s really a part of me, it’s like a personal diary that I’m writing. Yeah, you know, since I started, I guess it has brought me a lot of amazing things. It’s allowed me to travel the world and meet all kinds of amazing people, and I am very lucky to be able to do this and to put in music all these feelings. It’s great. I don’t know if it has changed me, you know? Probably, but it’s hard to tell when you are still in the making. Maybe, if I take a break one day, I will see, but now… I’m still doing it, you know?”
Released as the first single and music video from Spiritual Instinct, watch the music video for “Protection:”
That makes perfect sense. Each album’s artwork and overall sound gives off the impression of a time of the year. Shelter sounds quite summery, while Kodama feels autumnal both visually and musically. Is this intentional? If it is, does Spiritual Instinct lie in the same boundaries?
Neige: “Yeah, it’s a very good observation that you had. It’s true that every album has its own like, colour palette to fit the season, it’s very true. It’s funny, because in French when I speak about the record sometimes, I say, ‘Yeah, you know the blue record’ or ‘the green record,’ and people know what I’m talking about. Spiritual Instinct is almost black, it’s like this very, very dark blue, and I would say that it’s the first record that we have that actually doesn’t have a season or, like, a real colour. Actually, it’s a very introspective record, so it doesn’t take inspiration from the inside but more from what’s happening inside me, you know? Maybe that’s why it’s not a part of any season, it’s a bit different this time I guess.”
I noticed it for the first time with Kodama, then looked back and thought about it more visually. Then I saw the artwork for Spiritual Instinct. What made you choose the Sphinx?
Neige: “So, the Sphinx is actually a reference to the symbolist art movement. It was a group of painters in the 19th century who were really putting all this spiritual and mystical things into their paintings. I think it was mostly in France and Belgium. I guess in England there were some artists, too. They were mainly using this Sphinx character, so it’s a kind of homage to this art movement, and also there is, in the Sphinx, there is this contrast between the very primal animal side that you can see on the claws and the tail, the kind of weird hairy legs, you know? It’s almost a bit ugly, you know. Also, you have the more elegant human face, and the pretty wings, you know?
It’s basically, yeah, what I told you about; the contrast between something a bit more primal and aggressive and down to earth, and something much higher. That’s pretty much all the concept of the record, and also the fact I told you sometimes I have something alien and otherworldy inside me, and I can really see that in this creature, too. I kind of relate to this character in a way, I don’t know why.”
For a piece of art to reflect the music and yourself, it works really well.
Neige: “Oh, thank you!”
Here’s a clip of Alcest speaking about the writing and recording of Spiritual Instinct:
For fans, myself included, a strong emotional connection can be established with Alcest despite not speaking a word of French. I barely know any myself, but you can still connect to it really strongly. I was wondering how you approach lyrics generally, and what you think makes people so powerfully despite not necessarily understanding what might be said.
Neige: “Yeah, that’s a question I get asked sometimes. It’s very true. It’s very strange. Nice, of course, because I’m so happy to speak French. I know there are some people who speak French in the world, but not as much as English of course, and it’s a difficult language to learn. It’s really not easy to music, believe me. It’s super tricky because it’s kind of harsh in a way and very characteristic, in a way. When you hear French, you know that it’s French. It’s not a very musical language, to be honest.
I started to use French because, I don’t know, I felt a bit more comfortable. I’m not making any statement in using French. I just started to do it and didn’t stop. I think if people can relate to it, I mean to the music, so much despite the French, I think it’s because first, I don’t articulate when I sing. That’s on purpose; even French people, they don’t know what I’m saying because I try not to sound too characteristic if it makes sense. The vocal lines are very melodic, they are doing their own thing and sometimes following the guitar too, but it’s always very melodic. Vocal lines that you can sing along. I think it has something a little bit universal to them, you know?
Because, for example, we tour a lot in Asia, for example, and of course people in Asia, most of them don’t speak French but they can totally relate to our music. We did a show last year in India, and it was crazy because people were singing the songs, you know? So yeah, I guess there is something that speaks to people despite the fact that everything is in French.”
That must have felt crazy for you.
Neige: “Yeah. You know, to come back to your previous question when you asked me what did the band bring me as a person, I would say the most beautiful thing it has brought me is to meet all these people from all around the world and to travel. That’s the most beautiful thing the band has brought me, it’s crazy. You go to a country you think you would never go to in your life and see people that love your music and it’s like… it’s great, really.”
Off of their 2012 record Les Voyages de l’Âme, check out the music video for “Autre Temps:”
I can imagine, man.
Neige: “Yeah, it’s really nice.”
With such a unique sound you guys have, you must have a boatload of influences. I was wondering if you could talk through some of the main influences towards Alcest in general or Spiritual Instinct? Whatever you prefer.
Neige: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t know. For musical influences, I guess they are the same for when I first started the band. So, I grew up as a black metal kid, I was into black metal, and then I was into indie rock and ‘80s goth music. I discovered shoegaze later, and it’s funny because people thought that I was mixing shoegaze and black metal on purpose, but that was not the case at all because I didn’t know about shoegaze back then! I just wanted some very dreamy voices over blast beats, you know? Yeah, I mean, the musical influences… I listen to so many things; metal, Celtic music, Japanese music, indie rock, a little bit of… not everything, but… I guess I try not to make these influences very obvious. At the end of the day, they get mixed all together, and you can’t really see where everything is coming from, you know?”
Referring to what you were saying about shoegaze and blackgaze. A lot of people in the metal community consider you guys one of the pioneers of those genres. Did you ever expect that to happen?
Neige: “No! (laughs) No, no, no. That’s crazy. Of course, when people ask me this question I always say you don’t wake up in the morning and make a new genre of music. It’s not something that you plan to do, you know?”
Yet you did it!
Neige: “Yeah. So no, I absolutely didn’t plan this and I’m so honoured now to see all these bands that tell me they are influenced by Alcest. It’s crazy, it’s great. Of course, it’s not something that was planned at all, but if it happens, then I’m very happy and very grateful of course.”