Hayao Miyazaki’s classic anime Princess Mononoke doesn’t appear to be the most obvious starting point conceptually for a metal record. On the surface it’s a typical tale of triumph over evil, where protagonist Ashitaka finds himself caught in the struggle between forest gods and the humans who wish to exploit them. It’s also, however, a tale of duality. The often violent world of Princess Mononoke isn’t as straightforward as it first seems, and neither are Alcest.
Their fifth album Kodama is named after the tree spirits found in Miyazaki’s film, arguably the only truly innocent and blameless creatures in the movie. The rest of the characters battle with each other and with their own selves; even Ashitaka, who attempts to protect the forest, is literally being consumed by darkness. Alcest’s approach to duality on Kodama, however, doesn’t sound like a conflict. Unlike Miyazaki’s characters, they embrace dual identities and a sense of otherness on this album, and it works surprisingly well.
The band’s last album Shelter embraced the wispiness of shoegaze wholeheartedly (even featuring vocals from Slowdive’s Neil Halstead), turning their back almost completely on corrosive metal. But even from Kodama’s opening, title track, it’s clear that they’ve found a balance between the two styles. Pretty, fuzzy, almost contemplative passages sit alongside squalling riffs and clashing cymbals and the two never sound jarring. There’s even a faint choral hint in the background, lending even more hidden depth to the track.
‘Eclosion’ follows in much the same vein, but heralds the return of Neige’s ferocious roar, something that was conspicuously absent in Shelter. When he unleashes it here and on ‘Je Suis D’ailleurs,’ it feels less aggressive and more mournful. On the climax of ‘Je Suis D’ailleurs’ he begins to yell more melodically, but is slightly swamped by the waves of guitars and drums; as the song’s title sugests, it’s as if he really is reaching out from “elsewhere.”
Indeed, the couple of quieter tracks on the album still provide no relief from the strange sense of melancholia that hangs over much of the album. ‘Untouched’ is about as close as the pair would probably ever get to a jangly guitar number, albeit in distinctly minor key, punctuated by swooning riffs and Neige sounding as contemplative as ever. Instrumental closer ‘Onyx’ falls even deeper into the abyss, no drums accompanying the stark distorted guitars and a constantly stabbing underlying bassline that feels like it could only herald impending doom.
Alcest pioneered blackgaze – a hybrid of shoegaze and black metal that’s more recently been popularised by the likes of Deafheaven – but the deft straddling of the line between both genres on Kodama is still startling. The band never swing too far towards deafening tones or ambient fuzziness, perfectly occupying a nebulous space between the two. Neige once said that he wanted Alcest to realise his visions of otherworldly fantasy and wonder. Much like in Miyazaki’s film, that’s not necessarily a particularly happy realm, but Kodama’s world nevertheless invites you to explore its dark recesses and binary nature. And it’s one you’ll want to explore again and again.
Kodama is released on 30th September.