Alcest: “In dark times, to make an album of beauty and positivity could really stick out”

Alcest have just announced their first album in half a decade, Les Chants de l’Aurore. Frontman Neige explains how it’s a new dawn, and why being “a really weird band” is actually a compliment.

Alcest: “In dark times, to make an album of beauty and positivity could really stick out”
Nick Ruskell
Andy Julia

It’s been five years since French blackgaze heroes Alcest released an album, the dark and – for them – aggressive Spiritual Instinct. Now, they’ve finally announced their next chapter, the sublime Les Chants de l’Aurore. The first cut from it, L’Envol, is a markedly different turn in tone, back to the swelling dreaminess of the band’s earliest works.

This is a good entry point to the album as a whole. Built on major-key harmonics and a lightness of touch, when mainman Neige says he wants it to be uplifting and warm, he isn’t being vague – it is a thick wall of sound that sounds as utopian as Alcest’s longstanding vision of a Heavenly, peaceful, paradise garden.

We caught up with Neige to get the lowdown on the Les Chants de l’Aurore’s themes, writer’s block, the liberation of recording at home, and the quest to make “the perfect album…”

It’s been five years since Spiritual Instinct. Did the pandemic during that time have any effect on you, creatively?
“During COVID I experienced this blank-page thing, when you have no ideas, and you try to write guitar riffs, and nothing comes out. This was the longest time I’ve ever spent without writing anything, I think I spent a whole year without finding one riff. And I was trying to – I was always trying get something. I was like, ‘Okay, you’ve just lost it.’ And one day, everything just unblocked.

“I would really like to know how inspiration works, because I think it's a very interesting subject. And it's a very complex subject. But how can you explain that for a whole year, I didn't find anything, and then everything comes out? It's so weird.”

“For us, actually, it was a good opportunity to do something different, because we've been touring non-stop for 10 years. It was the first time I really spend some time with the people that I love, with my family, who I didn't properly see in a decade. I was just going back to my hometown maybe once or twice a year. Since COVID, I started to call my parents almost every day, and now I go see them in the south of France once every two or three months. So that was a good thing.”

This is your seventh album. Do you feel like that break gave you a bit of distance from what you'd been doing, and a chance to take stock of what Alcest is?
“I kind of this have this fear of being in a band who releases album after album, and the albums are less and less good. So, the more albums we do, the more perfectionist I tend to get. And I think to make great albums, you need to take time, so you need to take some distance, you need to be very self-critical. And yeah, that's why it took such a long time because I thought, ‘Okay, we are going to release our seventh album, and I don't want it to be just another album.’ I wanted it to be as good as I can make it.

“I write a lot of things, but I don't keep even 10 per cent of it. I throw most of them away, and I just keep the very, very best. It's very important to make an album that is like a journey, that's something you can listen to from the beginning to the end, and that's it, like theatre. All that takes a long time.”

When did you realise you had that?
“It starts with two or three songs, and then you start to see where the album is heading. You start to see the shape of a concept and the sound. That's when it starts to be interesting, because you can see where the album will go. But in the very first steps, it's not conscious.”

The last couple of records were pretty metal, whereas this has that more euphoric, dreamy feel…
“Yeah, they were, for Alcest, two quite dark albums. Usually, as you say, it's more like this uplifting type of music, very spiritual, very nostalgic. The two last records were… stronger and more angry. That’s one side of Alcest, but the main sound of this band is this very uplifting and spiritual sound. I needed to come back to that original approach. So, after having done two albums that were quite inspired by the darkness of the times we live in, I saw that – especially in these dark times – to make an album that has a lot of harmony and beauty and positivity could really stick out. I thought maybe people would really enjoy it, because it feels almost like a healing.”

The title, Les Chants de l'Aurore, translates as ‘The Songs Of Dawn’ – what does that mean to you?
“I guess that could mean many, many things. Like, this album is very orchestral, and it has a lot of different vocalists besides me – I asked a lot of my friends to sing on it. The dawn thing is like some kind of rebirth for me, after having done two quite dark records, a new day starting.

“Also, the title goes well with the mood of the cover artwork, because it has these very warm colours. To be honest, I didn't really think too much about the title, I just wanted something that fit the overall mood of the album and the artwork, because in essence, everything is connected, what you see on the cover art should be how the songs sound, and the lyrics go with it too.”

That approach feels quite similar to your earliest albums…
“Yeah, of course, it's supposed to be the most uplifting music I can possibly make, and the first Alcest album is very similar. It was a very uplifting album, people said it was like a mix of shoegaze and black metal. I started to get a lot of hate from the pure metalheads, because they were like, ‘How could this thing possibly exist? Uplifting black metal with very androgynous, clean vocals?’ It was something very different, something that people would hate or love, but at least it was very different from everything that was been released. I think this album will have a little bit of this effect again, because a lot of the music I hear these days is very dark. A lot of people are actually inspired by our reality now, which I completely understand, but we decided to go the complete opposite way. We wanted people to feel some serenity and some love, and to bring them to a more beautiful place.”

It's not often artists talk about wanting people to find a stillness through their music, rather than smashing something.
“No, and that's why Alcest is so weird. I know we are a really weird band; many people tell us we’re weird, but I take it as a compliment, because if it's weird, it means that it's quite unique, you know? It's important in the music industry now to not just be a copycat of someone else. It's funny, because metal bands try to be provocative by being dark and angry and stuff, but I think the ultimate provocation in metal is to be to be serene and positive.”

The track L’Envol is out already. Why did you choose to lead with that one?
“All the songs are so different from each other: we have some with just piano and vocals, some very proggy songs, some very poppy songs. It was very difficult to choose a single, something that could be an introduction to the album's style for people. This one was a little bit in the middle of everything, in terms of music style.”

The album opens with a very, very melodic track, which was quite a surprise after Spiritual Instinct. But as part of a whole, it works, and the idea of listening to one Alcest track in a vacuum is actually really weird…
“I know what you mean. It’s very different, and it's very interesting to have your perspective, because I guess a lot of people will feel like that. We want people to listen to the whole album. I know we are in in 2024 and albums don't really matter anymore, but for me, it so matters. It's so important. I'm very old school, I love albums. I think it's so much more interesting than just listening to two or three songs. I love when a band knows how to make a very cohesive and captivating album. There’s not a lot of bands who can do that, and I kind of have this fantasy of making the perfect album. Like, I don't know, Nirvana’s Nevermind, or Massive Attack’s Mezzanine – something you listen to all the way through and every song is amazing.”

You mentioned some guest vocalists. Who did you get one board?
“It's really all kinds of people. Like, for example, I have this friend from childhood, who now has kids himself. So I had two of his kids doing vocals. I have our tour manager on there as well.

“There’s also a lot of instruments we’ve never used before. There is this instrument on there called a viola da gamba, it's a bit like a cello. The person playing it, she's also doing a Japanese speech at the beginning of a song. Things like that help to make the sound spectrum really varied. On our last couple of records, it was just a guitar, bass, vocals and drums. I missed working like this, where the sounds are very diverse.”

What was the actual recording like?
“I mean, we are always working on things until the very last minute, especially me. I drive everyone crazy with this. Like, when, when the mix is finished, I'm like, ‘Oh, actually, I want to add some arrangement here.’ So we have to go through another round of mixing just to add, like, one guitar track.

“This time, we tracked the album at home. We bought some equipment, and because we've been recording albums for such a long time, we know what to do for tracking. Working at home was great, because I could record some guitar feedback at one in the morning, or add some last-minute arrangements. I don’t think we’d end up going to record in studio again, because once you’ve tried doing at it home, it’s hard to go back!”

And finally, have you thought about how you’ll present this live?
“We will have this really cool light show, with some props and stuff. It’s going to be atmospheric. We are really going to try to transport people to another place. We want people to have an incredible experience during the show. It won't be just music.”

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