Headbanging. Moshing. Crowds shouting along to growled vocals and crunching guitar riffs. Perhaps an intimidatingly tall guy or two with a massive beard and/or multiple tattoos pouring 10 dollar beers on random bystanders. Even though all of these sights are pretty much givens at many metal concerts, don’t expect any of them at an Alcest show. The French duo, made up of multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Neige and drummer Winterhalter, play a fusion of post-rock, shoegaze, and black metal that’s far more conducive to introspective daydreaming than collective hell-raising. But despite the often serene nature of their music, Alcest demonstrated at their recent concert at Glazart in Paris that they can hold the rapt attention of several hundred rockers just as well as their more aggressive brethren.
Shortly after the doors opened at the small venue, fellow Frenchmen Soror Dolorosa took the stage. Opening song “Autumn Wounds” kicked off the short set with a repetitive bass riff as singer Andy Julia staggered onto the stage clad in tight leather pants, high-heeled boots, and a pin-studded leather jacket. Unfortunately, Julia’s dreary moaning couldn’t justify his theatrical mic stand gestures and over the top appearance. As Soror Dolorosa repeated their rather uninteresting formula of icy, delayed guitar licks, simple drumbeats, and unchangingly steady basslines, many people in the growing audience headed to the bar or stared into space, slack-jawed. The only memorable aspect of the performance was an incredibly warm, slightly overdriven bass tone courtesy of Hervé Carles.
Les Discrets provided a welcome change after the lukewarm opening set. A longtime friend and collaborator of Neige, guitarist/vocalist and graphic designer Fursy Teyssier leads the band. The group explores much of the same sonic territory as Alcest, so maybe it should have been less surprising when Neige, Winterhalter, and Alcest touring guitarist/vocalist Zero stepped onto the stage to fill out the group’s live sound. However, the strength of Teyssier’s songwriting assured that there was no mistaking his music with the headliner’s. Winterhalter’s upbeat syncopations during “La Traversée” propelled the song with a vivacity rarely heard in the more atmospheric realms of metal. Although Teyssier’s vocals are usually low in the mix on record, his performance was both controlled and confident. Lyricist Audrey Hadorn even got up on stage for a duet with the frontman. Les Discrets deftly balanced short blastbeat passages with expansive washes of melodic guitars, providing the perfect warmup for Alcest.
After a brief pause (the three bands shared most of their gear), Neige and company returned to the stage for a headlining set that drew evenly from their critically acclaimed discography, including new album ‘Les Voyages de l’âme.’ Over the course of ten songs, Alcest alternated between beautiful arpeggios and torrential bursts of full-blown metal. Distorted electric guitar strumming that recalled the more intense moments of shoegaze legends Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine often eased the transitions between these two extremes. After opening with the nostalgic melodies of possibly their catchiest song yet, ‘Les Voyages’ leadoff track “Autre temps,” the group moved on to the massive, ethereal dreamscapes of “Printemps émeraude” and “Écailles de lune (Part 1).”
The best rendition of the night came late in the set when Alcest unleashed a song Neige admitted they rarely play live, ‘Écailles de lune’ closer “Sur l’océan couleur de fer.” In stark contrast to the band’s typical lush layering, “Sur l’océan” was essentially a stripped-down duet between Zero and Neige. The pauses between the song’s echoing, simple chords demonstrated a masterful command of space. As the bandmates’ harmonized vocals floated through the venue, the crowd fell completely silent.
Speaking of vocals, Neige’s performance was by far the best aspect of Alcest in concert. The beauty of his voice is one of the band’s defining features on record and was even more impressive live. The frontman’s supple vibrato and graceful falsetto were a unique foil to the heavy riffery of songs like “Là où naissent les couleurs nouvelles.” He also dusted off his somewhat rare black metal rasp during “Là où naissent” and “Percées de lumière.” Although Alcest’s optimistic lyrical themes reject the nihilistic philosophy of traditional black metal, Neige sure can howl like an Ihsahn or a Varg Vikernes.
Unfortunately, Glazart’s poor sound occasionally marred Alcest’s set. In a huge divergence from the guitar-driven sound of the records, Winterhalter’s drums dominated the mix and pushed the music in a far more aggressive direction. His blastbeats overwhelmed the intricate guitar and bass parts of the heavier sections. At times, the wall of sound pummeling the audience seemed more like a wall of noise, shattering the music’s fragile elegance.
However, the mixing imbalance was much less noticeable during calmer passages and couldn’t bring down the quality of the rest of the set. Hopefully, the band will get the chance to play larger venues with better sound systems in the near future. They deserve it — Alcest put on an enthralling show that often surpassed the transcendent sense of wonder found on their albums. They may not channel the aggression of your typical metal band, but their music is just as powerful in a live setting.
Là où naissent les couleurs nouvelles
Les Voyages de l’âme
Écailles de lune (Part I)
Sur l’océan couleur de fer
Percées de lumière
Souvenirs d’un autre monde
Pick up Alcest’s new album, Les Voyages de l’âme.
For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their official website.
Stay tuned for our upcoming interview with the band!