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Alcest has certainly been one of the most significant and talked-about extreme metal acts of 2007, surprisingly for being so non-extreme. Neige's nostalgic one-man project finally released its first full-length 'Souvenirs d'un autre monde' in August to an overwhelmingly positive response, mainly from those who had downloaded the leak months earlier, completing the transition from a minimalist black metal band with a rubbish demo into a soaring, escapist, optimistic blending of French black metal and British shoegaze that leans significantly towards the latter and is hardly recognisable as metal at all. While it's certainly distinctive, I found the deviation away from Neige's roots a little too extreme for my more extreme tastes, and fortunately this earlier E.P. from 2005 helps to bridge the divide while also highlighting how it could never really work in a sustained way.
Abandoning the band mates from the band's earliest incarnation, Neige handles all vocal and instrumental duties on 'Le Secret' and his work thereafter, and commendably only falls back on samples and extraneous instruments on rare occasions, creating his soundscapes with the traditional guitar, bass, drums and voice. The vocals are an interesting feature, as the first song is entirely sung in a dreamy manner that many have strangely mistaken to be a female guest singer, while the second returns to the screeching black metal growls for one last time before they vanished completely for the subsequent album. The contrast is enjoyable, and makes both songs stand apart even further despite their obvious similarities, the latter generally taking on a more traditional black metal style shifted into major keys and with a large sprinkling of fairy dust.
Alcest's lyrics, all written in French (and in the case of the second song, taken entirely from a poem by Charles Baudelaire), are aimed at evoking the atmosphere and mood of Neige's childhood fantasy realm the "fairy land" to which we are all invited as a temporary escape from harsh Avignon reality, an image that the album's old-style photos of children and samples of chirruping birds and a babbling stream at the start of the recording help to put in place before the music pulls the listener in completely. This idea is nothing new in black metal, though it has always been more customary for hypnotic music like this to have a far more sinister edge, as is the case with Burzum. For extreme metal virgins, it may be hard to reconcile the emotive screams of the second track with an idyllic mood, but you wouldn't be alone; while this is a successful experiment in pushing and merging genres for the most part, this recording makes it clear that one of the styles must go, and that turned out to be the conflicting black metal. Just don't tell the metal guys that.
1. Le Secret
The title track is the slightly longer of the two at fifteen minutes, but both songs show signs of being edited to the perfect length to make sure listeners are satiated, or perhaps even eager for more, without becoming bored by the repetitiveness of the whole thing. After the nature sounds and a minimalist acoustic introduction to welcome the dawn, the music launches into a distinctly post-rock direction before finding its true calling into overly distorted wall-of-sound in the shoegazing tradition exemplified by My Bloody Valentine, a band Neige claims never to have heard - if he had, this whole thing might have happened a fair few years earlier. The drums seem a little contradictory at first, proceeding to blast along in a slow determination to provide a black metal foundation, but like the ethereal vocals that finally creep in almost half-way into the song, they assimilate into the soundscape once it becomes entrancing and all-encompassing. The song deteriorates for me towards the end, with an unnecessary and distracting shift into a more poppy, indie rock style of drumming and an unsatisfying call-back to the opening acoustics, but this can all be forgiven as a feature of what is essentially a highly experimental E.P. testing new ground.
'Élévation,' based on Baudelaire's poem of the same name, is more of a song for black metal traditionalists, and offers a glimpse (or a little more, at thirteen minutes in length) of the direction Neige could have pursued before deciding to abandon black metal. It's similar to the first song with its fuzzy wall of sound and generally uplifting tone, but everything is shifted into a more distorted black metal world that occasionally contradicts the dreamy woodland atmosphere, particularly in terms of the vocals. The opening keyboard section is long and hypnotic and is a perfect example of how Neige's intentions contrast with Burzum's in similar passages, and once again it takes three minutes for the song to properly get going. The drums are a little harder and faster, the tremolo-picking rhythm guitars roaring away with some really pleasant lead melodies overlaid, and even the eventual arrival of the vocals keeps things running smoothly until Neige decides to mess things around a little and interrupt the delightful flow with an irrelevant and short acoustic section that sticks out like an unwanted comma in a lovely long sentence. The latter half is superior on the whole, with a great guitar solo that I really wish had lasted longer, and the song draws to a close at almost exactly the right time.
'Le Secret' is an insightful glimpse into Neige's attempt to combine the somewhat irreconcilable black metal and shoegazing genres, and the perfect companion piece to the recent album. Released on Drakkar, Neige now has a five album contract with Prophecy Productions that will hopefully see Alcest's style continue to evolve in the coming years rather than fall back on this nostalgic style too often. This E.P. is an interesting experiment, and one that works surprisingly well despite the inherent drawbacks.