Like a lot of musical genres these days, heavy metal is evolving at warp speed, thanks in large part to a small world made smaller by the Internet.
Stylistic categories are splintering. Aesthetic boundaries are crumbling, under attack from young musicians who grew up with access to anything they wanted to hear and a worn-out shuffle button on their iPods.
Last year, the San Francisco duo Deafheaven turned certain corners of the metal world upside down with its album “Sunbather,” which featured a blend of harsh, screamed vocals — a staple of black metal — and sweeping post-rock. The record was hailed as one of 2013’s best, and it set off a debate about whether Deafheaven is or isn’t “metal,” among other questions with no right or wrong answer.
If Deafheaven’s success signals the death of how we have historically categorized metal, then “Shelter,” the new album from the French band Alcest, nails the coffin shut, lowers it into the ground and piles on the dirt … under a blindingly bright, sunny sky.
Alcest began in the early 2000s as a solo project by a soft-spoken man known as Neige, and its initial recordings carried the marks of black metal: blast beats, distorted guitars, shrieked vocals and a lo-fi sense of dread. But beginning with 2005’s “Le Secret” EP — and honed over three albums since — Neige has moved Alcest’s sound away from black metal and toward shoegaze, a la the smeared pop-rock of My Bloody Valentine.
“Shelter” finds Alcest in full embrace with Neige’s vision. Gone completely are all traces of the band’s metal roots; in their place is the prettiest album of 2014 so far. It opens with a gauzy, angelic vocal that soon blossoms into “Opale,” a swirling pop song highlighted by a guitar melody that sounds like it could’ve been lifted from the soundtrack to a John Hughes film.
“La Nuit Marche Avec Moi” and “Vox Sereines” follow and feel more melancholic, or at least more earthbound. But from the title track forward — through “Away” and the 10-minute closer “Delivrance,” Neige cuts all ties to Earth, to reality, to his past, and lets Alcest soar into the blissful atmosphere he’s been aiming at for years.
The result isn’t perfect. People who criticize “Shelter” as being too lightweight or too polished have fair points. But those arguments are rooted in what Alcest has been or could be, and over the years, Neige has proven unconcerned about what others think of his music. On “Shelter,” he has finally distanced himself enough that he doesn’t even have to hear the others anymore. He is now fully in his own world.
— Ben Salmon