Before I review this album, I must admit a few things. First, this style of music isn't normally my thing. I find black metal to be the most insufferable noise on the face of the earth, and atmosphere-heavy post-rock usually puts me to sleep. Any combination of the two (Deafheaven, Liturgy, etc.) usually confuses the hell out of me and leaves me bored about two minutes into the first song. Second, from thorough Wikipedia research, I've gathered that Alcest is the brainchild of some French dude named Neige (Snow, in English), who writes songs as an adaptation of some magical "fairy land" he had "contact" with as a kid. For real. Sure, on paper this album sounds like a total disaster, but bear with me.
The first thing you notice about Les Voyages De L'Ame is how huge and operatic it sounds. The first four songs especially wouldn't sound out of place on the soundtrack of a Tolkien movie adaptation. As Neige's crooning, almost trance-like voice soars over top layers of guitar dubs and crashing cymbals, I get the mental image that I'm flying over a CGI-friendly New Zealand landscape, or a "fairy land" as it were. All the while, Neige's counterpart Winterhalter keeps it down on the drums, creating a very metal/punk-sounding bottom end. This allows Neige to freely explore the atmosphere he has created without getting too far off the path, which is something very hard to do when you're writing songs as long as these (Only two tracks on this album fall under the five-and-a-half-minute mark, four are longer than seven minutes).
The second half of Voyages is noticeably darker, as the drums get a bit faster, the guitars get a bit heavier and Neige replaces his soothing voice with occasional screams and a chorus of synthesized vocals that blend into the songs rather than soar above them. The change in pace is welcome, as by this point the "fairy land" shtick has run it's course and starts to get a little self indulgent. Alcest also starts experimenting more here--the first half of "Faiseurs De Mondes" reminds me a bit of Envy, while the guitars on "Summer's Glory" wouldn't sound out of place on a Butch Vig album. But for all the twists and turns, the album still sounds cohesive, partly because the layering ensures that huge, spacious quality remains.
Space is something that both ambient rock and metal thrive on, and Alcest use their headroom very effectively throughout this album. Post-rock has a tendency to abandon all kinetic aspects for the sake of sounding "epic," while black metal prefers to bury it's cool parts behind an impenetrable wall of distortion, bad drumming and piss-poor production. Voyages does neither; you can hear all the good parts, but there's enough room to ensure they aren't being jammed down your throat. The best example of this is midway through the second song, when without warning, Neige breaks out the black metal scream and Winterhalter comes crashing in with the blast beats. Although the concept sounds cool in theory, the way they pull it off without disrupting the momentum of the song is what's truly remarkable.
The only time the album falters is when it strays too far into one of the genres that influenced it. The "fairy land" atmosphere is so much a focus on Voyages' first half that no amount of good drumming could save the concept from getting stale by the middle of the third song. Conversely, Neige's work on "Beings of Light" is some of the most textured and interesting stuff on the album, but the four-and-a-half consecutive minutes of blast beats makes the song a challenge to get through.
All that aside, Les Voyages De L'Ame was a pleasant surprise for somebody who doesn't particularly enjoy what Alcest pulls from. The fact that I could actually sit through this album long enough to review it, let alone actually enjoy it, speaks volumes to how well executed it is. I'd seriously recommend checking this out if you enjoy black metal, post-rock or even screamo a la City of Caterpillar, Daitro or Pianos Become the Teeth. That, or if you enjoy well written songs by artists pushing their craft forward. Either way, it's pretty cool.
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