Les Voyages De L'Âme, the third full-length, studio album from French dream-spinners Alcest, is a beautiful journey, but a strange one. It leads the listener through a surreal, romantic landscape. Alcest is difficult to pin down via genre conventions, attracting fans of ambient metal, black metal, and shoegaze, consistently demonstrating that their ineffable aesthetic has great crossover appear. Many have likened the experience of listening to Alcest's music to entering into a dream state, but the sound is too vigorous, too ebullient, too alive and awake for that description to fit. Looking for a guide to help navigate this album, as delicate as a crystal structure and an ravenous ocean, Exclaim! turned to the album's author: the otherworldly musician Neige.
Les Voyages De L'Âme differs from Alcest's previous work in terms of its energy and forward motion/momentum. Was this a deliberate shift in aesthetic?
The new album is more uplifting in a way. The previous record (Écailles de Lune) was darker and melancholic. This new album is more about positive vibes; it is very dreamy and more dense. The first part of Écailles de Lune was very intense, while the second was filled with very atmospheric, with almost ambient songs. This new one is very much a journey, and something more ethereal.
Alcest's music is characterized by a dreamy, almost hallucinatory quality, an exploration of the inner landscape.
Yes, all of Alcest's albums are about the same subjects. The albums can be thought of as a film, a single film, each album being iterations of the same theme. Each album goes deeper, as well. Écailles de Lune was more personal and down to earth, more anchored. I was going through dark times in my life, and because I didn't feel very good I needed to express my own melancholy through the band. Now, coming back to Alcest with Les Voyages De L'Âme, I feel back on track.
And where does that track lead? You have described it yourself as an attempt to musically express a journey to fairyland or a dream state. What are you hoping to accomplish in leading your listeners on this journey?
All of Alcest is an attempt to explore this very strange esoteric experience I had as a child. It was not a dream, a lot of people try to say it was a dream, but rather it was a vision from a place that is not the world we know. It was a different reality. This sounds a bit strange but it happened and I never understood what it was. It is hard to describe with words, so I made this band to express it through music.
I have had some extremely strange moments in my life too, and would never discount someone's experience. It sounds like you may have had an out-of-body experience.
Yes, exactly! I am always trying to describe this other world and my feelings related to it, and with each Alcest album I go deeper into this concept. It is about journeys of the soul in the truest sense of the world, not a dreamy metaphor. I believe now that the soul can be divided, apart from the body. For centuries humanity had had stories of people who have gone from their body, into a coma.
Thank you for listening to this, not too many people are interested, because it is a part of life. I read a lot of books about being beyond the body, and they inspired me a lot for the new album. I have have found many similarities between those experiences and mine; the only difference was I was conscious and a child. I remember there was so much light and a feeling of pure bliss and happiness, which sounds like the heavenly visions described by people in the books. Heavenly dimensions and beings of light. I think as human beings we are very limited, anchored in the body and closed inside our five senses. As a pure soul I think we have a more accurate vision of reality. I have always wanted to find a way to explain this, to have a way of expressing what is beyond. And so, I use music.
While you certainly express this vision in all of Alcest's music, you do so most directly now through the vocals. The vocal performance on Les Voyages De L'Âme makes use of some harsher vocals than have become the norm for you, at least in Alcest. What accounted for this change in technique?
The harsh vocals are used very sparely here, less than I've used it previously even, just a few seconds, but it really does stand out. It is not about evil or aggression or anger, just a need to raise the emotions and make a good contrast to the very gentle parts.
Why did the album need this?
I felt I needed to do it. Sometimes, gentleness is not enough and you need to scream to push emotions to a higher level. I have actually been wondering if I will ever use it again. Harsh vocals are different from the artistic ideal of my own music, and I don't know if I should do it. Alcest have been compared to black metal so many times, I have nothing to do with black metal. It is not correct to label me as black metal because I did a few screams. There is nothing in my music about about hate or angriness.
You are not black metal, certainly, but speaking of genre, you have been called many things. Shoegaze is a label that is often applied, but it seems ill-fitting, as the direction of the music moves both inward and outward, in an exploratory impulse, rather than down. How do you define yourselves?
Some people have asked this question before, and what I am used to answering is that we are kind of otherworldly music. I think of Alcest as what would happen if the elves from The Lord of the Rings were making a rock band. The sound is very romantic with a deep... I don't like to use the word fantasy because it has a negative connotation, but it is magical. This magic is applied to rock and metal. But for sure we are not black metal. Also what I don't like about shoegaze is it is a dense wall of sound with no distinctive features. It does not do enough work with melody.
Alcest have been touring much more in North America over the past couple if years. What are some of the strengths and challenges about performing Alcest in a live setting?
This will sound strange, but it is not very comfortable to play live. I feel quite far from my world, my dream world, when I am onstage because I am focussed on the technical aspect of performance. I want to be good on stage, and so I don't have the time to take pleasure in it. There are lots of changes, lots of people, and I have to be focussed. I can hardly let myself get into the music. But, I also love it. I love to play on stage because of the audience. I really love to see them enjoying the concert, and the look in their eyes is really beautiful. I mostly focus on them, the audience, when I play. But I take most pleasure from composing alone.
I have seen you perform now twice in Toronto, once at a very small venue [old Hard Luck Bar] and once in a considerably larger space [The Opera House]. I was impressed by how much intimacy there was in both performances, how you made even a large room feel like a small room.
I am glad to hear you say that. Some people say that Alcest cannot be appreciated in a big space, that it needs somewhere close. But I know that if people focus on the music they will forget where they are.
It has been a busy time for you personally: Les Voyages De L'Âme is out on the 31st of January, lent vocals to Old Silver Key last year as well as the recently-released Lantlôs album Agape. What are your plans now for 2012 moving forward? Does Alcest get all your attention or do you have even more side-projects?
When it comes to more side projects, I don't think I'll take on any new ones. I already have a lot of work. There might be a new maybe a new Lantlôs or Old Silver Key, but I don't know yet. I do know there will be lots of touring with Alcest. We're coming back to the U.S. very soon, and touring Europe. What I am looking forward the most, though, is to come back to the composing. It was six months ago I did the last song and I really miss this part of Alcest, when I am just composing. It will be a very intense time the next little while, and I can't wait to get back to be by myself and write.