Back in 2016, Katherine Shepard, aka Norwegian/French multi-instrumentalist Sylvaine, dropped an impressive album of beautiful soundscapes in Wistful, taking the groundwork laid down by the likes of Alcest and branching out into greener, more ambient paths. In doing so, Sylvaine provided a soundtrack to some amazing memories,1 and when word dropped that she was working on a follow-up, to say that some of us were frothing at the bit to give it a listen would be a mild understatement. Now on her third album, Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone looks to lock in Shepard’s position upon the top of the ambient metal pantheon.
And right off the bat, instead of going with a shimmery vocal melody or a wispy guitar line, we are instead given a simple-yet-driving bassline to open up things on the title track. Don’t be fooled into thinking that neither make an appearance, though, as Sylvaine would rather let things build and simmer instead of just bathing you in ambient washes over and over. The end result is a stronger feel for contrasting sounds and builds, allowing the song to breathe when the moment arises or when to let the waves crash around you. At exactly eight minutes, it doesn’t feel so much like a song as it does a scenic journey through a forest teeming with life and energy. The pummeling drumming by Neige (Alcest) does aid the heaviness, but even then it’s more like a window dressing compared to the flowing tapestries painted by Sylvaine‘s musicianship and voice.
Speaking of, somehow Sylvaine‘s voice sounds stronger than she’s ever been, which is impressive considering that she possesses one of the most angelic voices I’ve heard in metal. That said, her growls and rasps needed work in the past. Thankfully, she’s utilized them less, but with better effect, as evidenced on “Mørklagt” and album highlight “Abeyance,” where her screams come out of left field, but still keep cohesion within the general aura of the song. So, while the effect might come across as a bit startling, it fits and flows like a dream. The lush production by Shepard and Benoît Roux, and mastering by Jack Shirley (Deafheaven), aid in making you feel like you are dropped into this vibrant, dream-like world with watery guitars and ethereal vocal melodies while the heft of the bass and the expert drumming of Neige and Stephen Shepard add enough earthiness to keep Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone rooted in earthier tones.
But that’s not to say that things are flawless. While the songwriting package is overall stronger than what was found on Wistful, none of the songs, save for closer “L’Appel du Vide,” punch as hard as “Delusions” or “Wistful” did on the last album. Another sticking point comes from the point that some of the repetition in songs do pull things down a bit as they progress. The opening of “Worlds Collide” and the middle of “Mørklagt” suffer the most from too much of standing in one place without enough of a build, seemingly holding on to an idea or motif a bit too long without moving anywhere until boredom starts to creep in. Thankfully, those moments are few and far between, as Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone paints quite the trajectory that Sylvaine is crafting for herself.
And that trajectory, given the quality of her songwriting, is near limitless. While Wistful contained two of her best songs, Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone is the stronger album overall, and with a bit more tightening, I can see Shepard surpassing Alcest as the go-to in ambient metal soundscapes. As it stands right now, I’m enjoying the journey that Sylvaine is taking us all on, and I can’t wait to see where the next chapter goes.