There is a point during the first minute of “Les Jardins De Minuit,” the opening track of Alcest’s sixth LP Spiritual Instinct, when the French duo’s stylish cohesion of shoegaze, black metal, and pop elements reaches a zenith. A digging, revolving bass line, shy, fluttering tremolos, and ethereal vocal harmonies all surge into a striking atmospheric black metal melody. It’s a moving instant, one that is candidly emotional yet eschewing of kitsch and banal melodrama. Instead, it feels earned and lived in. Throughout their career as Alcest and helped by gradual fluctuations in style, French multi-instrumentalist Neige and drummer Winterhalter have been cultivating a deep sense of beauty and unfiltered sentiment. An exploration of sonic poetry in the vein of The Lake Poets, unmistakably filled with a romantic ache, a longing, and an expression of beauty and infatuation with the world so deep it hurts. Looking back at their previous work, Spiritual Instinct appears as one of the purest manifestations of this search.
Compared to 2016’s wonderful Kodama, Spiritual Instinct is an album that is embalmed in lighter tones and motifs, charmingly optimistic against Neige’s often morose themes. Where Kodama was overwhelmingly mournful and draped in hazy overtones, Alcest here embrace a more direct musical approach right from the start. On the aforementioned “Les Jardins De Minuit,” dispersed vocals, punctuating blast beats, and sharp tremolos mesh with clean and growled vocals—evoking in many ways the band’s early records—before a break and goosebumps-inducing leads guide us through an instrumental, faintly progressive part. “Night collapses as a / Suspended tapestry / And I hear / Roars within / And I struggle / And fight / The shadows / Piercing us / Like arrows,” Neige sings (in French) on “Protection,” but despite the heaviness of his words, the feeling they project is not that of mourning nor surrender. Accompanied by an energetic, unusually dynamic rhythmic backdrop, the emphasis of the lyrics and the inflection of the delivery shift, peeling layers of meaning and opening them to the world.
Over the six long, but never overwrought songs, the duo maintain this straightforward songwriting and baroque playing approach, one which is often a synthesis of various elements from Alcest’s discography. This includes the more aggressive echoes of black metal, that they had at times forgotten, but which are now woven around a delicate structure. A musical construct that has more in common with avant-pop than with anything else. But where “Sapphire” is often crunchy and groovy and “L’Île Des Morts” swiftly turns into a rocking and fluid affair, it’s the closing two cuts that stand out. On “Le Miroir,” a ballad-like lamentation, electric guitars intone elongated licks in solitude until they are gradually submerged in layers of instrumentation—distorted and distorting electronic effects, meandering voices, and light drum shuffles—which give off a distinctly textural, disembodied impression.
Observed from just the right angle, somewhere between nostalgia and hope, the title song “Spiritual Instinct” seems to live in a world of its own, apart from the rest of the album. As the music turns towards ritualistic and melancholy patterns, it becomes a counterpoint to the preceding material. It leaves us with a sense of ambiguity, of belonging to a dream within a dream in which occasional glimpses of hymnic, passionate singing try to wake us up or lull us into an even deeper sleep. The warm and soft blanket of production then makes the music flow around us, underlining the immersion in Neige’s sonic narratives and gifting us comfort.
When I reviewed Kodama, I wrote that “this is music caught between worlds, between the material and immaterial, but ultimately a part of its own universe” and “a clear step forward for Neige and his vision.” Spiritual Instinct is no different as it presents another snapshot of Neige’s constantly evolving artistic vision. It is a piece of music that is both a testament to Alcest’s artistic integrity and an excellent new entry in an oeuvre that stands alone in the genre. While Alcest spurred on a whole style, the various blackgaze copycats failed to understand that it was all about Psyche, and not Soma that made Alcest so remarkable. Inimitable.