Deconstructing: Alcest’s Shelter And Metal In A Post-Deafheaven World

Alcest - Shelter

Deconstructing: Alcest’s Shelter And Metal In A Post-Deafheaven World

Alcest - Shelter

In February 2011, Brooklyn Vegan did an interview with Deafheaven frontman George Clarke — only a year after the formation of his band, more than two years before their world-devouring Sunbather, still two months before the release of their debut LP, Roads To Judah. The interview included a word-association segment, and when presented with the word “Burzum,” Clarke responded:

“The blueprint.”

I’m not sure “blueprint” was the word he was looking for — it’s definitely not the word I would use to connect Burzum and Deafheaven. I’d probably go with “primogenitor” or “forebear” (which would have been both an apt word choice and a hilarious reference, although not for another two years). Burzum was clearly a huge influence on Deafheaven the same way Hill Street Blues was an influence on The Wire: The early ancestors provided not so much a blueprint as an entirely new genus which evolved for decades before being adopted and adapted by these particular descendants. When Varg Vikernes took on the Burzum handle in 1991, shoegaze was at its cultural apex in England, but it was not part of the vocabulary of Norwegian metal bands. Vikernes’ own blueprint was the monumental first-wave Swedish black metal band Bathory. In a commentary track on the 2010 reissue of Darkthrone’s 1995 album Panzerfaust, that band’s drummer/spokesperson Fenriz admitted that both his band and Burzum — friends and collaborators, at the time — were doing little more than stealing riffs from Bathory, and then playing them at varying rhythms. Said Fenriz:

[Vikernes] would do these melancholic [Bathory-aping] riffs often at a slower pace; I chose this fast pace to do them in. [Long pause] For the record, I think it’s better when it’s played with slow drums than the fast style. [Pause] But, you know, he’d cornered that market and I cornered this one.

Irrespective of which sounds better, the music produced by Burzum bore many qualities comparable if not identical to the music produced by shoegaze bands like Ride and My Bloody Valentine: Heavily distorted guitars churned behind walls of feedback and fuzz; melodic chord progressions and mechanical-sounding rhythm tracks were repeated seemingly on an endless loop to hypnotic, sometimes hallucinatory effect; vocals were buried in the back of the mix, till the human voice became an utterly disembodied thing, neither a voice nor human. For all their structural qualities, these songs were as much ambient hum as they were “songs.” Burzum was hardly the first metal band to make pretty-sounding music, but Burzum was the first to make metal sound pretty in this particular way: like a pre-dawn ocean shoreline devoured by fog; like a long walk through a snowstorm illuminated only by moonlight. Even Burzum’s cover art is serene and lovely.

Along with Darkthrone, Burzum literally defined black metal’s second wave: Most of the music we currently define as “black metal” can trace its aesthetic origins to one of those two bands (or one step further back to the first-wave/second-wave link, Mayhem). And Burzum very much gave birth to an entire genre of “pretty” metal bands — or, more conventionally, “atmospheric black metal” bands — from Drudkh to Negur? Bunget to Paysage d’Hiver to Winterfylleth to Russia’s Blazebirth Hall collective to Canada’s Metal Noir Québécois Patriotique scene to virtually all “Cascadian black metal bands” including Weakling, Wolves In The Throne Room, and Ash Borer. [1]

Perhaps Burzum’s most prominent descendant, though (prior to Deafheaven, anyway) is the French band Alcest. Formed in 2000 by an artist calling himself Neige (née Stéphane Paut), Alcest were the first black metal band to not just overlap with shoegaze, but to actively incorporate elements of shoegaze. It wasn’t a giant leap, but it was a conscious one. The band’s 2001 demo, Tristesse Hivernale, is solid, occasionally outstanding atmospheric black metal — played by corpse-painted teenagers — but by the time of their first official release, the 2005 EP Le Secret, they sounded (gloriously) like a Cocteau Twins/Burzum collaborative split 12″. Roughly half the time, vocals were delivered in an angelic coo; the other half, they were a raw, distant shriek. This was the birth of blackgaze — perhaps the most significant offshoot of atmospheric black metal — and if Deafheaven has any blueprint, this is it.

It wasn’t just Deafheaven, though. The list of bands falling under the “blackgaze” heading is impossibly long at this point (it includes four other Neige-related projects alone: Mortifera, Ameseours, Lantlôs, and Les Discrets). If Alcest were not always the best blackgaze band, they were certainly the most famous, and they were also the most brazen. Rather than sing about Satan or suicide, Alcest’s lyrics were about the out-of-body travels to an ethereal netherworld Neige remembered experiencing as a child: “An incredible experience,” he called it. “It was like this [real] world was a copy of something infinitely more beautiful, perfect, luminous, and alive!” That brazenness applied to the music, too: Over the course of three LPs (soon to be four, but we’ll get to that shortly), Alcest perfected their sound without really evolving it — not so much blurring the lines between shoegaze and black metal as mashing up the two genres. Was it metal? Not necessarily, no — but it was deeply associated with metal. It was covered primarily by metal publications and metal writers, and released on a metal-leaning label. The last time I saw Alcest, they were touring with old-school Norwegian second-wavers Enslaved, who, for all their progressive elements, still sing about vikings and Odin, and stage their bombastic live set around their leather-panted, always-shirtless (and ripped!) pirate guitarist Ice Dale. Alcest were not necessarily metal, but they were also definitely not not metal.

In 2012, Deafheaven opened for Alcest on a truncated U.S. tour; Neige later delivered a spoken-word performance on the Sunbather track “Please Remember”; last week, in a short interview, Deafheaven frontman Clarke mentioned new Alcest single “Opale” as one of his favorite songs of 2013. The ties between the two bands run pretty deep. But last year, Deafheaven did with the blueprint provided by Alcest what no other band — including Alcest, of course — had ever managed: They broke through. There’s no point trying to corral all the accolades piled up by Sunbather over the course of 2013 (though I’ll mention here that it was our No. 2 album of the year) because at this point, I imagine even Deafheaven has lost track. The accomplishment I find most astonishing is this one: According to Metacritic, Sunbather was “the best-reviewed major album of 2013,” with an aggregate score of 92/100, beating out the likes of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (87/100), Beyoncé’s Beyoncé (85/100), and Kanye West’s Yeezus (84/100) [2]. When it came to positive reviews from major publications, Deafheaven beat all those artists — and every other artist in the world — by a considerable margin. That’s fucking huge. In the May 2013 installment of our metal column, the Black Market, I wrote, “I actually think Sunbather could be the most important moment for American metal since the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind.” And I know on its face that sounds insane (I promise I have an actual argument to back it up; I also promise not to bore you with that argument) but man, this is what I was talking about! This was the watershed moment!

Which makes the timing of Alcest’s fourth album, Shelter — due out on 1/21 — all the more fortuitous, just as it makes the album itself all the more curious. Because at the exact moment the wider world is open to “pretty” black metal — or atmospheric black metal, or blackgaze, or post-black metal, whatever — Neige has decided to close the circle opened by Burzum more than two decades ago, removing once and for all whatever traces of Bathory DNA were contained in his music, and make an album that openly, joyously, abandons metal altogether.

We’ll get to the question of “What is metal?” in a minute, but to be clear, Shelter is not. It’s a shoegaze album. A dream-pop album. You hear some early Lush in there, some Curve. Sometimes — and I mean this with no pejorative intent, I swear — the guitars remind me of Coldplay.

For anyone who’s been paying attention, this won’t come as a surprise. Neige released a statement in July 2013 openly explaining his new direction. “I don’t think there are any metal music elements [in Alcest] anymore,” he said, “though a lot of very intense parts and dynamics are still there.” In the statement, it was announced the album was being recorded at Sigur Ros’ Sundlaugin Studio, with that band’s producer, Birgir Jón Birgisson. Furthermore, the album would feature guest vocals from none other than Slowdive’s Neil Halstead. “This collaboration is like a dream come true,” said Neige, in another statement, “since Slowdive is not only my all-time favorite band but also a big inspiration on this album.”

Even without that statement — even without Halstead’s contribution — it would be pretty easy to discern that Slowdive was a big inspiration on Shelter. Furthermore, anyone who’s heard two Sigur Ros records could come to Shelter totally blind and still be able to spot Birgisson’s fingerprints before intro track “Wings” concluded its 1:32 running time.

All that said, I personally love the thing. Shelter is a rich, beautiful, spacious record without a single stray note, and a sound so deep and balanced it seems built to play at jet-engine levels in multiplex theaters outfitted with Dolby Atmos three-dimensional sound systems. It’s also a really well-written record, featuring not just the best melodies of Neige’s career but the best constructions; these are relatively long songs (averaging out at more than six minutes apiece), but they build and sustain momentum so deftly that they never for a moment drag. Instead, they move with the speed and grace of an osprey, frequently soaring above the clouds, climbing sunward, then diving gently, suddenly, before rising again. It is an experience of sheer aural joy and maybe even emotional sway. It is the type of album that makes one’s life feel like a movie montage, full of moments both inspiring and heartbreaking, even as they are surely, sans soundtrack, utterly mundane.

If there is one big criticism to level at Shelter — and it is indeed a big one — it is this: The album never really does anything new with its influences. It adores rather than advances. If Slowdive had released this album in 1994, between Souvlaki and Pygmalion, it would have been a(nother) straight classic. If Slowdive were to release this album in 2014, a year after m b v, it would feel a little lightweight, though it would be an obviously welcome and probably even triumphant return. But coming from Alcest — a band who, in 2005, more or less galvanized the sound that Deafheaven carried to glory in 2013 — it feels a little like a retreat, like an outright homage more than a vision realized. (I’m hesitant to question anybody’s motives for making the music they choose to make, especially someone with Neige’s vast and interesting portfolio, but I will say the licensing potential for this album is just about limitless. If Shelter tracks haven’t scored at least two car commercials by the close of 2014, someone has failed.) As a fan of Alcest, I’m actually not disappointed by any of this. In my opinion, Alcest peaked with their debut LP, 2007’s Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde, and their next two albums, 2010’s Écailles De Lune and 2012’s Les Voyages De l’Âme, delivered diminishing returns. Right now, all reservations taken into account, Shelter is my second favorite Alcest album. It may not end 2014 on my list of the year’s best albums, but it starts 2014 on there.

Of course, I’m the most useless possible test market for Shelter. I already love Slowdive and Alcest and I write about metal (along with music that is not metal) for a pretty big website. I can’t imagine how this album will be covered by the media outside of Stereogum, and I certainly have no idea what the rest of the world will do with it. It should appeal to fans of dream-pop and shoegaze, but will those fans be drawn to an established artist with a dozen-plus years under his belt as part of France’s black metal scene (not to mention an album sung almost entirely in French)? It will be marketed at least in part to the metal fans with whom Neige has spent his entire professional life, but how many metal fans will embrace a record that sounds like it should be scoring a Spike Jonze film? Is the album in danger of being sunk by its own narrative, or is the narrative a boon?

This may sound like a moot point, but it’s really not. As we drift ever-closer to the monogenre, metal remains both stubbornly insular and frequently misunderstood. In late 2013, for example, the band Beastmilk released their debut LP, Climax. As I wrote about it here: “[T]he title is apt: The album is endlessly, almost dizzyingly climactic — a series of soaring peaks that combine the moody, precise darkwave/post-punk of Interpol or Cold Cave with the maximalist bombast of Arcade Fire.” In other words: not metal! However, the band’s frontman, Kvohst, made his name as the frontman for Norwegian black-metallers Dødheimsgard — and while Climax was in no way a metal record, the Kvohst connection seemed to be the only thing anyone noticed: Even in mainstream outlets, it seemed to only be covered by metal writers. The album was streamed, pre-release, by metal-specific publication Revolver. It has thus far largely failed to gain traction with secular audiences who might not have found it in the dark corners of the metal ghetto, as well as metal fans who aren’t necessarily listening to bands that sound like Cold Cave and Arcade Fire. It wasn’t just Beastmilk, either: The 2013 LPs released by the grungy, Waits-ian Americana band Man’s Gin (featuring Erik Wunder of black metal band Cobalt) and proggy NYC shoegazers Vaura (featuring members of weirdo-metal bands such as Dysrhythmia, Gorguts, and Kayo Dot) fell through similar sets of cracks, landing in nearby states of limbo.

I can’t think of any genre quite so self-reflective as metal. (Besides punk, I mean.) The question “But is it metal?” is applied to just about every metal-identified album that doesn’t sound exactly like Defenders Of The Faith or Reign In Blood. And this has been going on for-fucking-ever. Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction: But is it metal? Metallica’s “Black Album”: Is it metal? Alice In Chains’ Dirt: Metal?

I’m as guilty as anyone. When I wrote about Ghost B.C.’s 2013 release, Infestissumam, I started by saying: “Look, we could waste lifetimes pedantically trying to fence in ‘metal’ in all its constantly shifting forms and definitions — and it would be a waste, I promise — but as a dude who thinks about this shit a lot, I gotta say this, just this once: The music currently being made by Ghost B.C. is not metal. It borrows heavily from the imagery of metal (specifically occult Satanism) and once in a while throws in a guitar tone that you might also find on a King Diamond record (or a Ke$ha record, or a Meat Loaf record), but what you’re hearing here is retro-psychedelia, prog-based pop, Broadway rock. It’s not metal!” When we put together our list of 2012’s best metal albums, I eliminated from consideration the potentially eligible albums from Baroness, Swans, Torche, and Converge, partly because, as I explained it: “[A]re they even metal? … [O]f the four ineligibles, only Converge even sounds like metal, and they’re a hardcore band!” And when I wrote my review of Sunbather — oh Sunbather; it always comes back to you, doesn’t it? — I spent paragraphs explaining why I was talking about the album in the context of black metal (namely, because Clarke sings in a traditional black metal style, something you don’t hear much outside of black metal) rather than shoegaze or post-rock: the two other genres by which the album is most informed.

If metal is the most self-reflective genre, then black metal is by an order of magnitude the most self-reflective subgenre. Black metal was born as a reaction — both to and against death metal, which was experiencing a rare period of commercial success in the early ’90s — and thus, it had a rigid definition before it even had a body. If modern black metal has a prime mover, a John The Baptist, if you will, it is Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, who founded the band Mayhem and the record label Deathlike Silence Productions, and opened the Oslo record store Helvete, before being killed in 1993 by Vikernes. Euronymous’s Helvete was to Norwegian black metal what MacDougal Street was to the ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene, and his views were considered gospel. Death metal was “trendy” and “fun,” said Euronymous; well, black metal rejected trends and fun. Earache was the most prominent death metal label at the time, and their catalog numbers were preceded by the word MOSH (e.g., Lawnmower Deth’s 1990 Earache release Ooh Crikey! It’s Lawnmower Deth! is cataloged MOSH025); Deathlike Silence catalog numbers were preceded by the word ANTI-MOSH. For Euronymous, the primary essential element for music to be defined as “black metal” was Satanism. “If a band cultivates and worships Satan, it’s black metal,” he said. “What’s important is that it’s Satanic; that’s what makes it black metal.”

That’s obviously some Old Testament shit right there, not meant to be taken literally in the post-Internet, post-millennial world, but people still live and die by those codes just the same. Jef “Wrest” Whitehead is a defining voice of American black metal (USBM); he’s the sole member of Leviathan and Lurker Of Chalice, and an occasional member of groups such as Nachtmystium, Twilight, Wrekmeister Harmonies, and Chrome Waves. Leviathan especially has been enormously influential and innovative, having released seven LPs from 2000 – 2011 (with another due in 2014) — a run that includes at least two stone classics (2004’s Tentacles Of Whorror and 2008’s Massive Conspiracy Against All Life). A San Francisco resident, Wrest might be seen as something of an elder statesman for present-day black metal. But in a December 2011 interview with Decibel, he skewered the entire scene, starting with Liturgy and Wolves In The Throne Room, bands who, he said, weren’t writing about misanthropy or Satan. “Call it something else. Black metal at the end of the day is about Satan, and will always be about Satan.” He followed that by saying, “Black metal seems to be for hipsters’ with their girlfriends’ pants on nowadays. Real metalheads don’t listen to black metal.” (Kind of hilariously, in another interview conducted at roughly the same time, Wrest mentioned Deafheaven as being “an impressive band from [his] neck of the woods.”)

Last week, the Decibel writer who conducted that 2011 interview, Adrien Begrand, wrote a powerful (and controversial) essay about the state of metal today, saying that — as far as he was concerned — metal’s last period of innovation came in 2000, and since then, the genre has been in a state of “stasis” or “atrophy.” “Since then,” writes Begrand, “anything ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ done in metal has involved musicians stepping outside the boundaries of the genre more and more. Shoegaze, industrial, post-punk, krautrock, progressive rock, jazz, trance, dubstep. It’s been happening gradually over the past ten years, but Deafheaven’s 2013 album Sunbather just might be the first major splintering that will eventually see ‘extreme music’ separating completely from actual heavy metal … Some critics still call Sunbather ‘metal,’ but to do so is to forget what makes heavy metal heavy metal in the first place, merely clutching to the few metallic threads in an otherwise richly varied musical fabric.” (Begrand had given Sunbather a negative review upon its release, calling Clarke’s vocal contributions “the aural equivalent of a bratty 2-year-old smearing finger paints on a Renoir … an absolute effing shame.”) Speaking about Sunbather and the state of metal (and I implore you to read the essay in full), Begrand said:

[E]xtremity is not the most important characteristic of heavy metal. Power is. And what we’re seeing with Sunbather is extremity eschewing visceral power in favor of emotional resonance and pastoral beauty. It’s pretty, but it does not convey the sense of extravagant power that Black Sabbath set the template for in the first three notes of its eponymous song and which has since become the genre’s most important tenet. And what is becoming apparent as bands like Deafheaven widen their musical breadth is that “extreme music” [rather than heavy metal] is the true limitless form of music.

So perhaps this is the kind of sea change someone like yours truly have been waiting for, only not quite the one I might have expected. As extreme music leaves metal in its wake, what is left is a musical genre like the blues, like country, one that has a good niche set for itself and is still capable of thrilling music, but is essentially a relic. There is plenty of creativity on display within the confines of those genre boundaries, but the days of true innovation, recordings that irrevocably alter the genre, seem over.

That’s a far cry from my claim that 2013 was metal’s best year since 1995, but it may also be no more than an issue of semantics? If we agree that music must “cultivate and worship Satan” to be called black metal, then we agree Deafheaven is not black metal. If we agree that music must “convey [a] sense of extravagant power” to be called metal — and we agree Deafheaven does not “convey [a] sense of extravagant power” (a notion with which I’m not sure I do agree) — then we agree Deafheaven is not metal. That’s fair.

But then … what is metal? Were those early Burzum records — all washed-out and lulling and gentle, with lyrics about sea ghosts and water spirits — metal? What about all the “pretty” “atmospheric” bands that followed him? And if metal is “essentially a relic,” is it fair to compare its practitioners to bands like Deafheaven, who are dealing not inside rigid confines but in a “true limitless form of music”? And if Alcest’s Shelter has “a lot of very intense parts and dynamics,” is it not a form of extreme music? And if we have lived a life defining ourselves as metalheads — or, at least, metal fans — and we listen to black metal and “extreme music,” then are we metalheads at all? Or are we something else entirely? Something with no definition — our identity stolen from us, or never ours in the first place — in a nameless void with Deafheaven and Alcest and Beastmilk (and even Leviathan, who don’t sing about Satan either, BTW), without form or shape, searching for confines, community?

[1] As must be noted in every mainstream-press mention of Burzum, Varg Vikernes is a murderer, an arsonist, a suspected terrorist, and a vile, reprehensible bigot, among other things. He has somehow managed to grow more repulsive as he’s gotten older, and that’s saying something, as he killed a man at age 20. But it’s also worth noting that an unsually high percentage (though by no means all) of the “atmospheric” bands that came in his wake also subscribe to supremacist/separatist ideologies. Part of that, of course, is because Burzum was an iconic influence, but another part is because much of that music derives from traditional European folk, which produces dulcet melodies. A lot of “pretty” black metal is made by people with ugly, ugly worldviews.

[2] Yeezus reference®

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