For Alcest singer/songwriter Neige, who has spent most of his life in search of a harmonious world far removed from this one, the tragedy of the recent terrorist attacks on his home city of Paris had an understandably devastating effect. “I live two minutes from Bataclan and Charlie Hebdo, it’s just behind my flat. I heard everything; I’ve seen everything almost…” he trails off, sombrely. “I’ve played in Bataclan, so I mean, it’s very close. My friends and people around me were devastated.”
With that in mind when listening to Alcest’s new album Kodama, their first since the sun-kissed departure from their black metal roots that was 2014’s Shelter, it is understandable why it makes for a much darker listen. “The record is darker,” considers Neige. “It’s angry, but it’s not pessimistic – it’s full of life.”
Despite their music containing elements of black metal, Alcest have never shared its nihilism; in fact, quite the opposite. In times of such horror, art infused with as much life-affirming spirituality as Kodama is essential for the soul. Defiance in the face of tragedy. “The music isn’t talking about it directly, but I’m sure there is something like a big ‘fuck off’ to these guys.” Neige says, passionately. “It’s impossible to be disconnected from what happened. You are forced back to Earth. I might have my dream world but sometimes you have to participate.”
Since the age of five, Neige has longed for a place far removed from our Earthly plain, experiencing vivid memories of a joyful, otherworldly place. He formed Alcest at the age of 14, and has spent most of his life searching for that feeling again. “It’s not easy to talk about, that’s why I make music to be able to express it,” he explains. “It was like having memories of a nice moment of your life, but in my case it was memories of a place that was not here, so it’s hard to describe… if there is a heaven it’s this place, you know?”
Such feelings of warmth and happiness are tangible in his music, addictive emotions that understandably made reality hard to accept at a young age. “That was the case for many years,” he remembers candidly, “but then these feelings became more and more distant [with age] and I became more and more [part of] the real world. It’s good actually, because otherwise I would just go crazy! I have to hope that when I die I will return there maybe… it would be great.”
Such was his need to recreate this powerful feeling with music, Neige became an unwitting pioneer, spearheading an ongoing movement of bands experimenting with black metal and shoegaze, and contributing to black metal’s wider evolution not only of sound but also of subject matter. He insists that it wasn’t intentional. “When I started my idea was to use elements of black metal, but instead of being in darkness to be in the light. I read about shoegaze for the first time reading an Alcest review! Of course when I discovered all these bands it was really good; especially (‘90s shoegaze pioneers) Slowdive.”
If anything, it turns out that the radical departure from their earlier, tumultuous combinations of chaos and calm into the gentle climes of Shelter, a record that polarised their fan base, is almost entirely due to Neige’s late discovery of the very musical movement everyone assumed he had been influenced by. “Kodama is way more personal than Shelter. We are proud of it, but I think it was maybe a bit too influenced by other things. I really was obsessed with Slowdive at that time. Shelter still sounds very ‘Alcest’, but maybe not as much as the other records.” Kodama, a return to the Alcest of old, yet still a confident stride ahead for their sound, is an acknowledgement on Neige’s part that Shelter was perhaps a step too far removed. “We felt the need to pick up on things where we left them.”
The next step in their evolution comes with eastern influence, Kodama artfully infused with Japanese musical refrains. It’s an attempt to capture the spirituality within Japanese culture that Neige relates to, something that can often seem alien to westerners. “Absolutely,” he agrees, “completely alien, they don’t share the same philosophy as us, the same mentality; it’s very different. We went to Japan twice to play concerts. Going there was a dream for me. We played some acoustic shows in temples – it was… wow! Ha ha. There is a connection with my spirituality.”
For Neige such spirituality has nothing to do with religion. In fact, quite the opposite. “You almost cannot be spiritual if you are religious because the things that religion tells you to do can be completely irrational and opposed to happiness and accomplishment. This is the opposite of spirituality. I am as a much a spiritual person as I am against religion.”
For the growing number of individuals who share his sentiments it is art such as his that they look to for answers, something with which Neige can identify; his music is his own search method. “At every show someone comes to me and says that my music really helped in a difficult period in their life. I never heard such things, really touching things.” He is evidently touched, but astonishingly, perhaps tragically, it is never a feeling he has gotten from his own music. “I really don’t feel much, maybe because it’s too close to me,” he muses. “It’s a spiritual quest for me. I’m not going to find any answers, but I need to express this otherworldly feeling I have inside. It can be very luminous sometimes, or a bit darker, as on Kodama, but there is something that is not part of this world that I need to express.”
Within the warm embrace and uplifting energy of Alcest there is solace to be found, for everyone except the man who keeps on searching for a place he may never again find.
Kodama is released on September 30, via Prophecy Productions.