The “issue” of incongruous genres poisoning the perceived pristine purity of metal has been written about and discussed to death. Especially when French “blackgaze” duo Alcest is concerned, it becomes irrelevant whether the odium is a case of snobbery, elitism or a sense of threat against internalized traditions and tropes. Because you see, their music possesses an undeniable artistic value regardless of context. So instead of insisting on the significance of trends that Alcest incited or citing their influences and legacy, I’m going to take a step back. Slip into a state of voluntary amnesia. For the next few paragraphs, there exists nothing but Kodama, the band’s fifth album, in a vacuum of preconceptions and expectations.
And it’s a strikingly pretty and graceful record, a sonified celluloid experience that reveals itself as a would-be companion piece to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. While not entirely conceptual, Neige’s love of Japanese folklore is obvious and Kodama oozes with the same pop-sensibilities and poignancy that Boris often explored (Smile, New Album). His is a genuine infatuation, not born out of forced or derivative cultural appropriation, that results in a tasteful homage to the music and culture that inspired it. “It’s an album about [the] confrontation of the natural world and the human world,” Neige reveals in a recent interview for Noisey, describing a certain duality in his philosophy and creative process. That same dichotomy infiltrates the record’s core and structures that at times come through as ethereal pop music hidden in layers of shoegaze and metal riffs while, at others, projects a hardened metal soul. Stylistic traits become lost in each other while ecstatic rasps are burdened by overwhelmingly rich layers of tingly chords (“Je Suis D’Ailleurs”).
The title track “Kodama” is a bittersweet piece. It’s a disarming introduction, driven by a striking guitar melody whose short nine minutes showcase Neige’s compositional proficiency in full. The tune’s flow is natural, linear in its storytelling, and devoid of any loops or verse-chorus-verse shortcuts. “Eclosion” picks up where the album’s introductory manifesto ends and mixes the introverted sensuality of shoegaze riffs with bouts of excited, yet hushed aggressiveness. But there are no belligerent intentions in Neige’s roars and screams and Winterhalter’s speedy beats. They are melancholy and serene. As the track dies into an acoustic passage, it introduces a lighter, somewhat less memorable middle part of the record. With its tremolos and blast beats, it’s “Oiseaux de Proie” that strongly veers Kodama back towards black metal, restoring a sense of progression. Were it not for my amnesia, I would be inclined to call this tune a nostalgic gaze into the band’s past and early records.
The closing “Onyx” is a short instrumental that acts as an apt coda as it slithers in a foreboding, resigned, and deconstructed march. While Neige will say that his music is always optimistic and positive, Kodama feels like a sorrowful defiance of this stance. Is that a consequence of the aforementioned duality, insatiable creative hunger, and lack of belonging that troubles Neige, the musician and artist? Or is there always dolor mixed in even the most positive of thoughts? It’s all here for us to try and understand as Neige doesn’t hide anything from the listener. His music, a conduit for his most intimate and meaningful thoughts, reminds us how often we fail to see that there are real people behind the curtain.
As my memory returns, I realize that Kodama is not a return to roots for Alcest, but a clear step forward for Neige and his vision, now free of any outside calculations. Metal, post-rock, shoegaze, pop—nothing is off-limits and Alcest is all of this at once and none of it at all. Kodama thus works best with our guards down, with our societal and peer pressure induced filters turned off. Like Neige, this is music caught between worlds, between the material and immaterial, but ultimately a part of its own universe. Coming back to the harsh reality of contexts and existing art, Kodama doesn’t feel as Alcest’s masterpiece nor an album that would redefine the band’s history, but it still offers an unabashedly pleasurable listen.