Alcest – “Kodama”

French blackgaze pioneers Alcest return with their fifth full-length album Kodama, a dark, ethereal, emotionally resonant concept album about the conflict between man and nature. Kodama channels shoegaze, post-punk, and black metal to incredible effect on one of the best albums this year.

The band’s previous album, 2014’s Shelter, was the most divisive album in the band’s discography, diving their fanbase and the metal community upon release. The band had always walked a careful balancing act between their melodic inclinations and black metal origins, but on Shelter they fully embraced their shoegaze inspirations, leaving metal behind entirely. It isn’t hard to see why that proved a controversial move, despite leading to one of my favourite albums of 2014. But Kodama represents a return to the band’s earlier, darker sound; not only in the form of greater dynamics, but also a heavier guitar tone and the return of Neige’s distinctive black metal roar. Drawing inspiration from Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke and Japanese culture more broadly, Kodama is Alcest’s heaviest, darkest album in years.

Alcest has always excelled because of Neige’s understanding of the importance of dynamics, and Kodama is a true return to form. The band consistently emphasises softer and heavier sections within the same track, flowing from one to the next with an ease that comes from years of experience. In the hands of a lesser band, the way heavy distorted chords segue into acoustic strumming passages on the opening track Kodama might have felt stitched together, but in Neige’s competent hands it never once feels jarring. The beautiful chorus, featuring guest vocals by Kathrine Shepard, rends the heart. The following track ‘Eclosion‘ opens with a slow, fuzzed-out blackgaze riff and trademark Alcest melodic guitar lead, but explodes into a fast-paced crescendo that calls to mind the post-rock theatrics of Explosions in the Sky.

The percussion is more most energetic and complex, recorded live to tape for a natural sound, and is consistently some of the best heard on any rock album this year. Drummer Winterhalter shifts with ease from the heaviest blastbeats to rhythms and patterns that sound almost tribal, such as in the album highlight ‘Oiseaux de proie‘, which emphasises the album’s overall theme of the natural world. Neige’s delicate, ethereal croon has always played a huge part in the band’s atmospheric sound, and here Neige is stronger than ever. Not only because the vocal melodies are some of the catchiest to date, but the variety is greater than ever: ‘Je suis d’ailleurs’ features some of his most aggressive singing to date, occasionally contrasted his abrasive black metal howl.

On the album’s shortest full song, Untouched, Neige ditches lyrics entirely, and instead uses his croon to simply carry the melodies and sounds in their most immediate form. The guitarwork on this song draws on all of Alcest’s diverse influences, from post-punk to black metal, with skittering, ethereal guitar riffs that pull at the heart strings, while Winterhalter’s drumming conveys the almost overwhelming emotion of this song just as powerfully.

With an album of such strong material, it would be hard to pick favourites. Kodama‘s stunning chorus section; Eclosion‘s dynamic song elements and post-rock grandeur; Je suis d’ailleurs‘ emotional ferocity and blackgaze riffs; Untouched‘s emotional potency; and Oiseaux de proie’s incredible songwriting that gets to the core of what Alcest does best, make them all viable candidates. As the album fades out with the dark, experimental outro Onyx (derived from a guitar riff looped backwards), I couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer range of emotions this album has made me feel in its brief 42 minute runtime. A deeply moving, cathartic experience, Kodama is one of Alcest’s best albums to date.

Kodama is out now on Prophecy Productions.