France's Alcest represents a rare point of inflection in heavy metal. The solo project of Neige began around the turn of the century as a raw black metal band before pivoting into the ethereal entity that glimmers in metal's spotlight today. In Alcest's pivot from another dime-a-dozen black metal band, they invited a softer glow to one of metal's most abrasive genres. They also invited a number of other bands to follow suit. In the years since their shift, bands like Deafheaven or Sylvaine among many others have risen to prominence as well. Given the sheer quantity and quality of these bands, post or shoegaze-tinged black metal isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Yet, Alcest's sixth studio album, Spiritual Instinct, shows why the Frenchmen are firmly still the best to do it.
The trajectory of Alcest over the last decade or so has ebbed and flowed to some extent. They built their signature sound across Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde and Écailles de Lune and by Shelter, they completely washed their blackened tendencies. 2016's Kodama saw those elements return in grand fashion. Spiritual Instinct follows the blackened resurgence Kodama began—building upon it, slightly tipping the scales in black metal's favor. While, of course, maintaining Alcest's signature patina.
"…In Spiritual Instinct, there are questions about the meaning of life and the possible existence of something else; something divine," Neige states through a press release. "The struggle to be the best person for yourself and the people around you, to evolve as a soul. You have to face your demons if you want to be a better person.” The vocalist and multi-instrumentalist channels much of his existential unease into six songs with the continued aid of Winterhalter on drums.
The unease certainly translates into a darker and more acute tone. Historically, Alcest has taken several minutes to build over the opening songs of their albums—like the title track to Kodama. "Les Jardins De Minuit," however, wastes almost no time in delving into kaleidoscopic tremolo. The sharp tone carries throughout much of the record's entirety. The lead single, "Protection," follows a similar suit, opening with a towering riff and drum pattern that builds a massive jumping point for Neige's vocals.
The album's mid-section—"Sapphire" and "L'ile des Morts"—though, is arguably the album's strongest point. "Sapphire" has an almost off-kilter melody between the low-end rhythm and Niege's vocal delivery. "L'ile des Morts," meanwhile, taps into a billowing groove that ultimately erupts into Neige and Winterhalter's best instrumental performances on the record. As the nine-minute track approaches the middle third, it begins to play out as the album's crescendo featuring. Chilling howls give way to an immaculate stream of blackened rhythm capped with a guest vocal appearance from Kathrine Shepard of Sylvaine to give it a glinting sheen that is, again, unmistakably Alcest.
Ultimately, Spiritual Instinct is another jewel in the crown of Alcest. For the better part of two decades, Neige has been fearless in his project's musical endeavors. He and Winterhalter have reshaped a genre an often rigid genre as it pertains to stylistic decisions. For all the acclaim the band has received over the years, to return once more and deliver a nearly flawless album is sensational. Yet, to return and release an album that so evocatively reflects one's recent struggles and features some of the year's most memorable arrangements speaks to the artistic genius of Alcest.