ALCEST at Meltdown Festival 2018
The French atmospheric metal band Alcest played at the Southbank Centre in London as part of the 2018 Meltdown Festival, a series of events curated by none other than Robert Smith of the Cure. Camille Regnault had the chance to go to the concert and meet the band's founder Neige (aka Stéphane Paut).
Alcest’s association with black metal largely spans from their formative days and the release of the 4-track demo tape entitled Tristesse Hivernale in 2001. Their subsequent EP and albums are complete departures from this genre and yet much of Alcest’s overall work still contains small kernels of black metal energy (evoked by double kicks, piercing screams, tremolo picking and heavily distorted guitars). Where black metal selects positively (but quite exclusively) towards traits such as dissonance, minor scales and a typically low quality of production however, Alcest embraced a brighter sound, with clear verse-chorus sections and simple but beautiful melodic passages which conveyed fragility through innocence as well as melancholia.
Where a lesser band might have languished or destroyed the fragile surface tension between black metal and post-rock, Alcest not only remained airborne, they positively soared (though not without the occasional blast beats!); like a bird harnessing thermal air columns, to gain and adjust altitude.
Fast forward more than ten years later and Alcest have secured their position as the stalwarts of "blackgaze", with two split albums, two EPs (including one live performance at the BBC), and five studio albums including Kodama released in 2016.
Furthermore, they are arguably responsible for emboldening a wave of black-gaze bands such as Deafheaven who have found considerable acclaim in the US. They have also helped to support like-minded projects, such as Sylvaine, which is spearheaded by fellow multi-instrumentalist, Kathrine Shepard (Shepard notably provided vocals for the track 'Kodama' whilst Alcest frontman, Neige, has contributed percussively to the project's Wistful album, appearing also on their forthcoming album Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone).
The success of Alcest's work appears to spring, at least partly, from their symbiotic relationship with nature in the Romantic sense in addition to the profound level of trust established between the band's founding member, Neige (Stéphane Paut) and Winterhalter (Jean Duflandre) who have worked together since 2009. On their tours, the Alcest contingent is shored up by the long-serving (dare I say, legendary) musicians Indria Saray and Zero. In a break with tradition, Saray also played bass on the last album.
At the very apex of the Alcest pyramid is Neige's abiding memories of other worlds, which provide the prism for the group's musical direction and album cover art. What is interesting is that while many bands actively cultivate a distinct sound or explore specific concepts for individual albums (Bathory's Blood on Ice being one such well known example), the quintessence of Alcest is precisely the 'concept' - the potential for a reality (or several) which exists beyond our own but which cannot be intuited by our senses.
With the Kodama album, the concept evolved in response to the growing influence of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki's work, most notably the film Princess Mononoke, which explores the duality of the natural world versus the human world. In Princess Mononoke, as evidenced elsewhere in Japanese folklore, the Kodamas are the spirits that inhabit the trees and are the "sign that the woods are healthy".
There is also something unusually reverent about going to see a band like Alcest play at a venue like the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank which is entirely seated. Row upon row of metalheads (amongst some indie kids and others) sat patiently, as if awaiting some hallowed event. For the uninitiated, seated venues can of course present challenges (I am still savouring the images I have mentally inventoried of metallers collectively windmilling in their chairs). However as someone who is slightly below average height and invariably finds they cannot see the woods for the trees (no offense intended to tall people), I found I was able to take in the full panorama of the show.
This had a completely unexpected impact on me. Physically sensing the music resound in the hall and seeing at once the spectacle unfold on stage with a depth of field that was unfamiliar to me, was strangely emotional.
After the show, we hung around for awhile by the merch stand, until it was time to meet Winterhalter and set up for the interview with Neige. When we finally met, I was bowled over by their genuine warmth and generosity, given the physical demands of the tour and how mentally taxing life on the road must be (they had played Download Festival in France just a day before and were preparing for their imminent tour of South America).
Winterhalter beamed as we shook hands in the lounge and mentioned that they had also met fans from various Alliances Françaises around the world on their tours.
We were then directed to a small soundproof room where Léonore and I set up our two cameras. Neige appeared shortly after and likewise radiated with enthusiasm and positivity, insisting that we switch to first names terms, confirming once again their salt-of-the-earth as a group of people.
And that's exactly how Alcest are: hardworking and wonderfully sincere people who care about their fans as much as their music (the opposite, ironically, of the protagonist 'Alceste' of Molière's play Le Misanthrope). Needless to say, everything fell into place with the interview and having felt reasonably nervous at the start, I realised I had allowed my guard to drop entirely by time the interview was fully underway.
Speaking with Neige did however make me appreciate not only just how calm and measured he is as a person (something which translates well into Alcest's dream-like passages) but also how thoughtful and detailed he is in the answers he provides and we discussed everything from hyper-masculinity in metal, to the influence of anime on certain generations in France, to the relationship between nature and technology, and gender fluidity in music.
Watch the full interview with Alcest here
Blog post by Camille Regnault @freeclimb_