It’s perhaps typical of the gung-ho Gallic approach to Black Metal that some of the most exotic forms of this embattled genre derive from France. On one hand, you have the musically ultra-progressive and philosophically zealous Deathspell Omega (either the saviour or soiler of the BM artform) and on the other you have Alcest, who are something altogether different.
Écailles de Lune isn’t a black metal album as such. Sonic alchemist and sole band member Neige has crafted a total immersion musical landscape that variously caresses and claws at your emotions playing out the magical narrative that’s utterly mesmerising. Écailles… could have easily have descended into sonic slush with its mix of mixing atmospheric Black Metal reminiscent of early Burzum, plaintive shoegaze, and post-rock, but somehow it all seems so natural together. Three genres deeply rooted in the pursuit of atmospherics, the soothing shoegaze is broken by dramatic and emotive BM passages while the post-rock elements offer a cinemascopic breadth. Not only does it work, it’s hard to imagine why no-one did this before.
Alcest will, in perpetuity, be bound to their pure BM beginnings, but with Écailles de Lune have produced a ‘black metal’ album that is neither particularly ‘black’ or even ‘metal’. In that respect it’s better compared to the other standout BM crossover release this year – Ludicra’s The Tenant which similarly plays acrobatics with the BM genre but to somewhat different effect.
Écailles de Lune is haunting but beautiful, exhilarating and soothing. The otherworldly atmosphere is only enhanced by the entirely French vocals that make, for a non-French speaking listener (well, I can order a cup of coffee and ask for directions in French, themes that don’t feature particularly highly in this narrative!) this a purely musical experience, which doesn’t at all detract from the ethereal majesty of it all, but in some ways enhances it. In that respect, this release bears comparisons to wacky Icelandic sound sculptors Sigur Ros – indeed, much of this album would play out quite nicely as the soundtrack to the BBC science/nature documentary.
The sign of a truly great album is that, when the last notes fade to silence, you’re left yearning for more. Much much more. The BM or shoegaze or any other label is entirely beside the point, here – Écailles de Lune sounds like an album that needed to be made – as if merely uncovered from the musical mêlée like a beautiful fresco on a grimy church wall.
The likelihood is that this will be shunned by the BM crowd for its ‘indie’ leanings and the French vocals won’t help commercially outside of France, so Alcest will struggle to get a popular foothold, which is a shame as this album needs to be heard by many, many people. Here we have then, the first absolutely essential album of 2010.