Roundtable Review: Alcest – Shelter

 It’s a new year and that means newer and bigger things here at Postrockstar. In an effort to bring our readers more dynamic and unique content, we are bringing back Roundtable Reviews, an open forum where our writers take turns speaking their mind about a highly anticipated or hyped album by some of the bigger bands that fall under our spectrum. This month we’re tackling French Black Metal turned shoegazegroup Alcest’s ‘Shelter’, their much anticipated follow up to 2012’s ‘Les Voyages De L’Âme’ , an album we gave an 89% rating to during the infancy of our earlier days.  Now the band is back with ‘Shelter’ which offers a starkly different sound than their 2012 effort. What do our reviewers think?

** A big thank you to Prophecy Productions for providing our team with copies of ‘Shelter’ to facilitate this Roundtable Review! **

    “I must say I’m a little conflicted by Alcest’s latest release. Shelter is a fairly compelling album when taken on its own. The songs are strong, for the most part, and it’s a very accessible listen. That being said, I’m still wondering what the hell happened to Alcest!

Bands grow and evolve, mostly for the better, out of artistic necessity. Usually it doesn’t feel contrived or forced, especially when the band is such a subgenre powerhouse like this one. Having been pioneers of the black metal/shoegaze/blackgaze/whatever stupid subgenre name that garnered them attention and admiration for years, I find it super quizzical that there is no cocoa in the puffs this time. Where’s the metal? Not here. At all. Don’t bother looking.

This is ponderous to me because I enjoyed Alcest’s past output a great deal, and I feel I’m one of the many who have benefitted because other bands used their influence and created some really great sinisterly shiny stuff. In a lot of fundamental ways, there wouldn’t have been such a critical darling like Deafheaven if not for Alcest infusing the chocolate and the peanut butter of blackened ambient and shoegaze/dreampop.

Unfortunately, Shelter just doesn’t live up to the hype and lineage. While I commend Neige for so completely switching up his sound, I also find the final output to be a little too idol worshipping of Slowdive, while not doing them justice as an influence. Neil Halstead of Slowdive guests on the track “Away,” and it just sounds odd and out of place.

I know it sounds like I’m just not letting this band unfurl its new wings and fly. I can assure you good people that I am not someone looking to relive the musical past glories of Alcest or Slowdive.

Whatever the case, if I had no expectations for this album, I would have been pleasantly surprised by what is essentially a very nicely put together cloud of dreampop. It lacks some warmth and feels alittle sterile, which is ponderous because Birgir Jón Birgisson, of Sigur Rós fame, produced it, but it’s certainly not by any stretch a bad album. To label this shoegaze is stretching things, but all genres become meaningless descriptors if there’s no universal agreement about them. My green and your green may be different. Results may vary.”  – Erich

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    “When I heard the single, Opale, back in December I knew that I needed to hear Shelter as soon as I possibly could. I felt that Alcest dropping the black metal influences was a great move. I enjoy their back catalogue, but it was time for them to try something new.

It is a shame that I was disappointed on the first listen. Despite the wonderfully uplifting first two tracks (Wings is really an introduction into Opale) I found myself bored until the brilliant final track Délivrance.

However, with repeated listens, I have really grown to like this album. The lack of black metal and the understated shoegaze influences delivers what is essentially a dream pop album with some post-rock guitar. It is gently uplifting with some wonderfully subtle parts that shine through in all of the tracks. However many of the tracks almost blend into each other and the album does warrant closer listening, but the whole experience is often more like background music.

Shelter is not the triumph I expected it to be, but I am happy that I gave it some time to sink in rather than disregarding it after the first listen. I’ll be interested to see where they go from here.” TenaciousListening

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    “Oh where oh where has thy Black Metal gone? The decline in the presence of their black metal roots has been noticeable on each sequential Alcest release, but with ‘Shelter’ even trace influences are no where to be found. I’m OK with that because the album is littered with powerful guitar offerings almost completely derived from the post-rock realm and those same brilliant vocal melodies and harmonies that very few bands can deliver, but I feel like longtime fans could feel abandoned here.

To be perfectly honest, during my very first listen my first thought was, “It’s crazy how much I am reminded of Anathema.” I’ve since stepped away a little from that train of though but I do think a fairly straightforward comparison isn’t too far-fetched.

When you look past the dramatic shift in sound, ‘Shelter’ offers a very uplifting, powerful and spacious performance comprised of some of Neige’s best work in terms of song structure. There really isn’t a single lost moment on this album. And although a part of me really misses the powerful flairful dramatic chuggy guitar work found on 2012’s ‘Les Voyages De L’Ame’ , I’m smart enough to realize that their 2012 effort was likely not going to be topped by a follow up of a similar offering.

I would have liked to see the album feature more than one epic build up (which comes in the album’s closing track ‘Delivrance’), but that’s just personal preference. ‘Shelter’ is an album that I would put in the upper echelon of “very good”, bordering the territory of “excellent” in terms of rating. Will this album receive any year end awards or be on any top albums lists at Postrockstar? I’m not sure. Will I still be listening to it by the end of the year? Without question.” – James

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    “I will admit I’ve never heard anything by Alcest until this. I still haven’t heard anything they released before Shelter. I have no idea what sort of journey they’ve been on, I can only see where they are now. And what I can see right now, they’re in a good spot. That being said, I can’t really just sit down and listen to this album, it’s not gripping enough for that, I need something to entertain me as I listen. I don’t know if this album is their best ever, or if they’re slowly declining. Either way, they’re sitting pretty with “Shelter”.

It’s a very relaxed album, I imagine them playing this while sitting down, with their eyes closed. The album as a whole is composed beautifully, and I find it very easy to enjoy as background music. I can’t find any other word for this album, other than Serene. Soothing vocals, strong usage of non-traditional instruments (I love the percussion instruments in Opale), and the overall sound is downright dreamy. I have no context for this album, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.” – Foofer

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    “Alcest’s latest album, ‘Shelter’, was touted as a new direction for the band, with all metal elements now supplanted by an encompassing shoegaze aesthetic. This is kind of true — there are now no unclean vocals to be found in it’s 46 minutes. However even those with only a passing interest in Alcest’s former works will have come to realize that they’ve always aspired for a smooth and dreamy sound anyway, where even the growls seemed to glide without friction atop ethereal waves of guitar. So ‘Shelter’ is no different in this regard. What is different is the somewhat brighter tone delivered through a greater utility of delicate post-rock-esque melodies, but that’s about it.

The long, climbing song structures are still there ( In “Voix Sereines” it even seems as though it might transition into Neige’s signature growls at any moment). And for a so-called “shoegaze” album, there isn’t a whole lot of fuzz or smattering of whirry effects beyond what you might find in your average post-rock record. So for all intents and purposes, I guess, this is a hopeful post-rock album with accessible vocals. Like “Takk…” but with fewer sonic boundaries encroached upon. There’s a token cameo by shoegaze legend Neil Halstead. Many of the songs sound similar; most are beautiful and a few are forgettable yet harmless. “Opale”, “Voix Sereines” and “Délivrance” are undeniable highlights. This is an incredibly easy album to enjoy time and time again, but a difficult one to love. – Shooter

  

‘Shelter’ is available to purchase here from Prophecy Productions on CD & Vinyl here (europe) and here (USA)

Ocean Districts – Expeditions

By James

As we put 2013 behind us and look forward to another year of spreading the word about great music, we really have to look no further than Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, just a short 50 mile swim across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki. Why Tallinn, this little city of about 425,000 nestled away in the Nordic land of Europe? Because there we find Ocean District, a unique prog-metal/Post-Rock hybrid band that has just released their debut album “Expeditions” earlier this year and let me just get this right out of the way: It’s really, REALLY good.

Let me put it this way. This has been a crazy first month in the realm of Postrockstar as we’ve seen three major releases in the first month of the calendar year with release from Mogwai, Thee Silver Mt. Zion and Alcest. Despite three HUGE releases from bands with huge fanbases and followings, I opted to have my first review of 2014 be about a band who has exactly 222 likes on Facebook as of this writing (compared to Mogwai’s 454,645).  That statistic should speak volumes as to how impressed I am by this release.

Spanning nine tracks and about 36 minutes long, “Expeditions” is a creamy blend of in your face Prog-metal and crescendo laden atmospheric post-rock. The band transitions between the two sounds without much hesitation or trouble and much of the album is as free flowing as it is powerful. Tracks like “Arctic Circle”, “Endurance” and “Seven Summits” pack a hell of a punch and are clearly the tracks where the band truly shines, but other songs on the albums such as “Expedition” and “Aurora” and “Discovery” show the more hybrid side of the band as they incorporate stretches of softer ambient passages that lead to monumental build ups.The band ties all of this together with a couple of short transitional interludes that are somewhat of “reset buttons” of sort when the album decides to return to heavier material.

Instrumental Prog-Metal is an area of music where I get the most out of it when it comes in small packages. By combining that style with post-rock influence and offerings Ocean District’s sound has a captivating longevity and appeal to it that I often times just don’t get with a large majority of prog-metal. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Animals As Leaders, Scale the Summit and Periphery, but I have a harder time really connecting with these bands rather than just admiring them for their talent, opting to listen to them when I consciously want to hear something loud rather than instinctively listen to them knowing their albums are rock solid. I don’t get that with Ocean Districts, this is an album that I have wanted to listen to repeatedly. I don’t think about whether I’m in the mood to listen to prog-metal or not, I just hit play and enjoy.

When it comes to independent DIY releases, I don’t hold them to the same level I would major releases that are backed and funded by labels. You just can’t expect the same production values or studio gloss from an out-of-pocket funded album. Still my major critique of this album is that I’m not particularly thrilled by the mixing. I know that is sort of a technical bullshit nitpick that won’t bother most people who check this album out, but as an audiophile nothing pisses me off more than one instrument reigning dominance throughout one channel of my headphone. Sweeping or spiraling crescendos are usually found in the left channel while the primary guitar track can often be found in the right channel. Luckily, there is a little inconsistency with the mix so this isn’t always the case, but a more dynamic range would have been the cherry on top for me when it comes to “Expeditions”.

I managed to get through the entire review up to this point without this comparison, but here it goes, in case you are wondering. Fans of the likes of Cloudkicker and Pelican will definitely enjoy this release. “Expeditions” hits our radar as an early contender for debut album of the year and should hit your speakers/headphones/etc as soon as possible if you’re looking for that first great loud and in your face release of 2014.

 

tags: instrumental metal rock ambient instrumental post-hardcore post-metal post-rock progressive progressive metal Tallinn

Degree of Arc – Halls In Hospitals

On occasion I will come across a release that just feels right, somehow. When I see an album the artwork tells me what I expect to hear when I press play. If, when I press that button, my thoughts are confirmed the album already has an unfair advantage towards winning me over (not that I see each new musical offering as a challenge!). Degree of Arc’s début album Halls in Hospitals is one of those releases.

Granted I already thought I knew what to expect after enjoying their début EP Circles, but on seeing that artwork depicting light streaming through into a darkened hospital corridor I settled on the idea that this was going to be a much darker offering. I was not proven wrong.

If you enjoy the offerings of bands such as Explosions in the Sky then you should like this. Or are you bored of the same old tremolo picked loud\quiet\crescendo style post-rock bands? Are you going to need a reason to check Degree of Arc out? Go on then…

The atmosphere created by this album is phenomenal.

There you are. Now go and have a listen!

Oh, you want a bit more? Think about being in hospital; think what it means. They are not often places of joy, although those moments do happen. Most visits to a hospital are visits we would rather avoid; dark points of our lives. Underneath that darkness though there is usually a layer of optimism fighting to break through and that is what Halls in Hospitals is; a dark album simmering underneath music full of hope.

Samples are a big thing for me. They are so easy to just slap on top of the music without a thought, but musicians that take time to place suitable samples in the right place are saviours of this much overused technique. Great Distances starts with a sample, I guess from a space program at some time in history, and it works beautifully. It does not matter that it is barely legible; it just sets the scene over tremolo picked guitar. Tremolo is a big part of Degree of Arc’s sound. Then again you could argue that for a lot of post-rock bands, but they just seem to do it right; creating layers of atmosphere to build the music on top of. The crescendo of this track is utterly uplifting; far from original, but completely moving.

The Space Between was the teaser track for this album and is more of a passage of music than a full track itself. Reversed guitar echoes from empty, lost, notes that are laid once again over reverb heavy ambience and drums are thumped, not aggressively, but hopefully.

Forward brings that feeling of hopeless optimism. Cleaner tremolo picked melodies are driven by marching drums; going nowhere, but pushing onwards earnestly. Then Degree of Arc’s great sense of spacial awareness returns with sparse melodies that slowly build.

Dark, empty drones blend with ambience as Death of a Cosmonaut begins. Probably the darkest moments of this album, you are lost in the cold grip of deathly silence. This is the highlight of the album as it drives on and on relentlessly until it breaks into a peaceful place trapped in-between rumbling instruments and pounding drums.

Wake is another passage of music, much like The Space Between. This time the atmosphere is lighter with a heavy focus on ping pong delay. To say it is the weakest part of the album would be unfair as it sounds great, but I would not miss it if it was not there

The Marcher is a great example of some of my favourite compositional elements; one that finds its way to a motif and then builds over that from the rest of the song.  It feels like there is lots of movement but at the same time it does not really go anywhere. Still it keeps your interest throughout and that is a skill I admire.

The album closes with A Day After It Started, more reverse guitar and droney notes and then another build into a massive crescendo. Before you can finish the album with a complete feeling of elation the tracks dying moments fade out with uncertainty. That lack of resolution leaves you wanting more. Press play again? Yes please.

Do not get me wrong; this release is cookie cutter post-rock. It is easy to listen to and the band knows exactly how to give you exactly what you expect as an avid listener of post rock. The reason you need to listen to this is because you want to be taken to places, you want to feel something, and you want to be exhausted once the final notes have played out. That is what Halls in Hospitals does to me. Experience it.

 

tags: alternative rock alternative ambient apocalypse cinematic degree of arc film music halls in hospitals instrumental noise post-rock rock uk post-rock UK