Alcest’s trek to Shelter has been a long and gorgeous journey. Over the years, Neige has taken his most-loved project from black metal soil and sprouted upward, spinning his branches and leaves into beautiful, soothing soundscapes. His ambitions have long been combated by black metallers that thrive on ugliness and rebellion; Alcest’s inherent prettiness seemed at odds with the genre’s core ethos. Yet it was hard to argue with the results. The band’s blackened washes, blended with the bootgazed sprawls found on 2007’s Souvenirs d’un autre Monde and 2010’s Écailles de Lune, were wholly unique, a soothing pairing for anyone that had worn thin their copy of The Mantle. Neige had succeeded in creating a world of his own, a land where lilting, delicate dashes of fairy dust could mesh comfortably with tar-charred reflection.
But as Alcest’s branches cry ever skyward, those black-soiled roots grow farther and farther away. Shelter strips away the last vestiges of metalness from the Alcest sound, bringing in Sigur Rós producer Birgir Jón Birgisson and Slowdive vocalist Neil Halstead (for lead vocals on album semi-highlight “Away”) to provide maximum fluff. Alcest—both boldly and predictably—has officially left their metallic shackles behind. The result? Well, it’s pretty fucking boring.
The problem with Alcest ditching their final flakes of metal isn’t a matter of principle. If Neige and Winterhalter want to completely divorce themselves from the black metal they were touching upon six or seven years ago, more power to ‘em. Let the men be happy. But as Shelter laboriously unfolds itself, it becomes apparent that the metal moments were crucial to Alcest’s storytelling ability. They were signposts. Even as recently as “Là où Naissent les Couleurs Nouvelles,” from 2012’s Les Voyages de L’Âme, they employed heavier moments to propel glistening dreampop passages to their final destinations. The songs on Shelter just flitter into nothingness, untethered by tension and free of any real consequence. The result is an aggressively unaggressive work, an album that—despite weighing an attogram less than the pang of guilt you feel after stealing the last mini-carrot from the fridge—is an absolute chore to navigate.
The only real bloodrush comes courtesy of album linchpin “Voix Sereines,” where Neige throws some fat fuzz behind a cloudpushing, wholly profound chorus of “aaaaaahh….aaahh-aahh aaaaaaaah…” to remind you that yes, you are still listening to an album. But the other reminders border on the shrill: The repetitive jangling of lead single “Opale”; Halstead’s garish and out-of-place spot on “Away”; the preening, too-pretty conclusion of “Deliverance.”
There are some great things buried in here that lead you to believe that this is an ambitious work, such as the layers of piano plinking beneath the title track and the string sections that grace the final two songs. But like Baroness before them, Alcest’s foray into metal-free territory is more attractive in theory than in practice. Without the juxtaposition of dark and light, Alcest is laid bare and left to make a statement without the help of their trademark approach to genre-straddling. They’ve stumbled into the (spot)light, naked, ready to speak to a brand new audience. Trouble is, as they drift further from their native tongue, they don’t really have much to say.