Monday, December 5, 2016

album review: 'kodama' by alcest

So if you've been following my spiraling journey through black metal, one thing you've probably noticed is that I tend towards the more melodic and atmospheric brand of it - honestly, probably what I would recommend for most listeners trying to get into the genre. At the end of the day, I'm a junkie for great melody and tunes, and the black metal I tend to like falls in this vein.

And thus, it was only a matter of time before I had to talk about Alcest, the French experimental metal project that many consider one of the pioneering bands of the 'blackgaze' scene, blending black metal textures with shoegaze. And I'll admit while I'm not a huge shoegaze fan, early on I liked a lot of what I heard from Alcest. Even though in comparison with so many of their peers they weren't writing incredibly dark or bleak songs, there was a knack for melodic composition that I just found stunning, especially their debut album Souvenirs d'un autre monde - hell, I actually liked it more than their follow-up Ecailles de Lune. But it has always seemed like Alcest was much more drawn to the more ethereal, soaring tones that came with post-rock or shoegaze, and with each successive album the black metal tones receded more and more, before their 2014 album Shelter discarded them altogether.

in other words, there was a significant part of me that wasn't really interested in hearing more - I saw what happened when Opeth left black and death metal for old school progressive rock, and that was at least a genre I knew and understood more. And yet when I heard that Alcest's Kodama this year was actually pivoting back to black metal, reportedly inspired by the Hayao Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke, I was intrigued. As much as their shift in sound could frustrate me, they did write interesting material, so I wanted to check this out - and thanks to Patreon votes, I now can. So what did we get from Kodama?

 This is a bit of a tricky record to evaluate. On the one hand, if you're looking for Alcest to return to more of their black metal roots... well, for the most part you get there, this is certainly a return to a heavier sound. And yet in that peculiar way so much black metal is for me, it's probably one of the breeziest, mistiest, and and most refined and relaxing blackgaze records you'll hear this year, and not just because most of the screamed vocals are kept to a few tracks. Now I'm used to that coming from Alcest - I wasn't expecting a record as driven or sweeping as that last Saor album, for instance - but it does mean I'm not quite as captivated by this record as I'd like to be. It's certainly solid and enjoyable, but for a record seeking to capture the spirit of a movie that many would consider a classic, I'm not sure it hits that scale and power.

And it's tough to articulate why that is: outside of the closing track 'Onyx', which simmers in a dark, murkier guitar tone with no drums and the mournful melody fluttering behind the bleakness, much of this record plays in a blackgaze sound that isn't unfamiliar from Alcest. From the opening title track, it's certainly a return to a rougher tone against a cloud of cymbals with the tremolo picking, sparse kickdrums, and rattling riffs balanced against a solidly firm bassline. In fact, it's telling how much that bassline drives the minor melodic shifts within the song, especially with Neige's smoother vocals coasting above it with hints of backing tones from Kathrine Shepard, although I'd be remiss not to highlight the two interweaving guitars on the interlude midway through that builds some impressive atmosphere, especially when the choppier strumming picks up off the gently muffled beat. It's a gorgeous highlight, and while I'm a little cooler on the major chord guitar melody holding the midtempo of 'Eclosion', it's still memorable in its own right. But it's also at this point when you realize that for as good as that melody is, Alcest is content to leave the main melody midway in the back of the mix and never drive the song - in fact, it's an open question how much any of these songs have driving momentum at all! The tempos, especially in a lot of the drumwork, seem to be comfortably middle-of-the-road, with the kickdrums and especially the snares never seeming to have the crack or punch to push more of a groove forward. There are exceptions, especially that sharper smolder on 'Oiseaux De Proie' which probably the most openly aggressive track here and easily one of the best, but it often means for much as I might like some of the atmosphere on cultivated on the liquid guitar interludes of 'Eclosion' against the kickdrums, or the solid main melody on 'Untouched' that flows of the gentle patter of drums and a smoldering bass, or the sharper and more aggressive drumwork on 'Je Suis D'ailleurs' that drives a crescendo that I wish exploded a bit better beyond the fluttering tones and hit a more satisfying ending. As much as this record flies within the clouds, it never quite blows through them to new heights.

Granted, as little as they're a factor on any Alcest record, the lyrics are not much help. For a little context, 'kodama' loosely translates to tree spirit, and while Princess Mononoke is an environmental fable, it's a morally complex one. I don't want to spoil much of the movie - although it's nearly twenty years old, if you haven't seen it you should - but there are shades of grey there, between the tranquility of the forest balanced against untamed savagery and frontier humanity struggling to survive but often negligent and rapacious in their greed. In that respect, Alcest's Kodama seems to be speaking from the tree spirit's point of view, not quite understanding the physical dangers against the forest but lashing out in raw pain to protect whatever it can of its sanctuary, with a primal intensity that humanity cannot truly comprehend. A little ironic that said message is now being conveyed by humans, which makes the environmentalist message all the more stark... but fitting, as it isn't like nature is unleashing hordes of wild spirits to defend itself in today's day and age. But at the same time, Kodama is inherently one-sided, which doesn't capture that moral ambiguity and complexity that allows Princess Mononoke to hold up as a powerful animated environmentalist fable while something like Fern Gully is often viciously mocked. And while to Alcest's credit the writing is abstract enough that you can mostly ignore this, but for such an important thematic element of the original film to be left out is a little glaring.

Beyond that, though, this was a pretty easy and enjoyable black metal record to like, another record I can add to my great list of extremely good but not quite great black metal that find pretty damn relaxing. Definitely a step up from Shelter in my books, while I don't think it hits those transcendent moments that, say, Saor's decidedly less-refined Guardians hit, it's still damn solid all the same, netting a very strong 7/10 from me and a recommendation. If you're looking for a good atmospheric black metal record with some interesting themes that's pretty easy on the ears... well, you've probably already heard this, but if not, give Alcest's Kodama a listen - it's worth it.

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