Whereas certain metal splinter genres like sludge and doom have found their requisite bands experimenting in ways that are still decidedly metal – or at least "extreme" by any measure – other areas such as black and post-metal see their own representatives in a practical race to see who can shed their extreme proclivities altogether. Alcest is one such band.
Flirting with 90's indie rock trappings is nothing new for this French duo – essentially the one-man project of multi-instrumentalist Neige backed since 2009 by the drumming skills of Winterhalter – but Shelter is their first complete abandonment of metal altogether… there is nary a blastbeat, growl, nor brutal riff to be found anywhere on the album's concise 45-minute running time.
That's not to say that Neige is reinventing the wheel, though; Shelter is a straightforward mix of 4AD dream pop and the type of ethereal post-rock that Explosions in the Sky are best known for… not to mention the gauzy shoegaze overlay that such an alchemy implicitly guarantees, of course.
It sounds derivative on paper, but somehow Neige transcends his cookie cutter influences and produces a work of heart-stopping elegance and profundity. "Voix Sereines", in particular, is hands down the most plaintive and delicate work of the man's already illustrious career, a despondent lullaby of music box melodies and wistful singing that is fittingly placed in the middle of the track listing… it's the soul of the album, and belongs as its nucleus.
The twang at the end of the guitar lines on the title track could – if taken out of context – herald the introduction of a new Mazzy Star single, but Alcest aren't quite that predictable. Twang aside there is no further evidence of roots rock assimilation, no blues aside from the heartache rendered potently clear in Neige's understated vocals. Nonetheless, this would make a fine crossover single aimed at whatever constitutes indie rock radio in 2014.
Then again, so would "Away", which many reading this will insist even more a graceful composition than my pick of "Voix Sereines" above (those who aren't chastising the band for "going soft" in the first place, that is). I can't really argue that point, but all it does is prove what a deep bench Neige is culling for inspiration this go round.
Perhaps the best evidence that Neige is not beholden to the orthodoxy of his influences is the way he builds toward a crescendo on album finale, "Délivrance". Rather than the ringing chimes that have become the hallmark of tension-building in post-rock (Explosions in the goddamn Sky), Neige shows restraint by settling for a very gradually rising chorus with subtle percussive acceleration. The final 2:30 minutes of the song consists of an unnecessary reprise, but in spite of contributing minor bloat it's still a fitting tribute to Neige's classical ambitions here.
The word "masterpiece" gets thrown around a bit too frequently – often in service of albums that will be forgotten altogether a few years down the road – but if you can wrap your head around the fact that Alcest are no longer a metal band in any way, shape or form, Shelter is deserving of whatever hyperbole you care to throw at it.