Posted on November 10, 2009 -
The past few years have been very good to shoegaze fans. Not in terms of number, but in terms of singular, unique albums that actually add something to the genre, which has been an elusive breed since the days of old when My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride pioneered their immensely popular and unique styles. 2005 saw the self titled debut of Serena Maneesh. 2006 also had a winner, Asobi Seksu’s Citrus. We have yet another winner this year with newcomer Alcest’s Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde, roughly translated from French as “memories of another world.” Such a title is appropriate for an album that, like any shoegaze album, is flooded with details and dreamy soundscapes. Yes, I know, you have heard it all before. It’s another garden variety shoegaze album that doesn’t really try anything different, isn’t it?
Actually, that might be true. Much like it’s guitar effects, shoegaze is a genre with highly distorted boundaries which are often pushed for the sake of trying something new instead of making quality music. When rabid experimentation is not present, excessive imitation is often the alternative. Souvenirs doesn’t really do either, and it succeeds just by being a pretty album. Alcest is essentially the work of one man, Frenchman Neige, whose roots are with such French black metal acts such as Peste Noire and Mortifera. A lot of people seem to be pinning Souvenirs as a black metal album, but if it is, I’m going to have to read into exactly what Black Metal is, because this is as much of a pure shoegaze album as I have ever heard. But what is strange is I can’t trace the roots of it’s sound back to any shoegaze bands of old. The closest it gets to is to Ride, and even then the resemblance is only vague.
In this way, Souvenirs is unique but not really engaging in a sense that although this sounds new, the style is fairly familiar. That is to say, big distorted guitar sounds arranged with sweeping melodies, glowing seven chords, simple beats, lots of cymbal crashes, and glazed ethereal vocals. Even shoegaze fans will admit that the trick has been overused. Some figure that if they drown a simple chord progression in distortion that it will somehow bloom and be beautiful, but really, you need a nice melody to really make something work. Neige knows how to write pretty, simple melodies, but he also knows how to play the shoegaze cards as well. Perhaps the most interesting fact in respect to Alcest’s style is that Neige claimed to have not listened to any shoegaze music prior to making Souvenirs. Whether or not this is true is debatable, but in any case, this album has a strong, grounded core of memorable, pretty melodies. The fact that it works in the shoegaze context only makes it all the more unique.
However, while his melodies are simple, Alcest manages to cover a wide range of melodies within single songs. Of the six songs on the album, not one dips under the six minute mark, and most songs are segmented into smaller, distinguishable movements. This keeps the songs interesting, but at times hard to pin down, much like Sigur Ros’ progressive post rock. And yet, while every song is bathed in electricity, they all feel organic too, and typically have an acoustic guitar and piano at their core. The two songs that impressed me most in this respect are Ciel Errant and Tir Nan Og. Ciel Errant is a lovely little acoustic guitar based ballad that somehow reminisces of The Smashing Pumpkins just as much as Sigur Ros or Ride. Tir Nan Og is the real winner though. The gentle piano leaps and acoustic guitar strumming in conjunction with a simple rhythm makes it sound like as much of a rural folk song as a dreamy urban shoegaze song. A perfect way to clinch the album.
Whatever Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde is, it’s beautiful, and you can expect more of this, because according to http://www.alcest-music.com, Alcest has signed to the Prophecy Productions label for a five album contract. Yeah. This wasn’t a one time shot. No matter what direction Alcest takes with any albums in the future, I’ll remember this one as one of the best of 2007.