Alcest‘s music is defined by its struggle between opposing forces. From the release of debut album Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde, the French duo of Neige and Winterhalter have maintained a steady balance between ethereal shoegaze beauty and dense, powerful metal. Those conflicting elements reached peak intensity on 2010′s Ecailles de la Lune, wherein the band’s metal roots were more clearly defined, screams and blast beats playing a much larger role than on its predecessor, which in turn removed any doubt of the band’s metal bona fides. Curiously, none of those elements were to be found on 2014′s Shelter, to date Alcest’s most straightforward dream pop album. It’s a pretty album, unquestionably, with its share of mellifluously melodic moments, but despite its graceful approach and warmly pleasant textures, it was missing a key part of Alcest’s unique blend. Without the volume and power to reinforce it, the beauty doesn’t seem as luminous.
It’s not fair to Alcest to call their newest album, Kodama, a correction. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with Shelter on its own merits, but for a particular type of Alcest listener, it didn’t scratch the kind of itch that a record like Souvenirs or Les Voyages de l’Âme does. Kodama, named for a mythological Japanese tree spirit, is a return to a familiar juxtaposition of sounds for Alcest. They’re much louder this time around, with an intensity that’s been dormant for a few years. None of which should be a surprise; it’s not coincidental that the word Kodama also denotes an echo.
From the hefty thrust and opening swirls of guitar on the title track, Kodama finds Alcest aiming for the kind of towering peaks that have always been within their sight during their decade-long career. The track itself reaches that summit pretty quickly, its progression of delicate power among their best tracks to date, making the most of its nine minutes by leading its journey through various moments of wonder before arriving upon a triumphant instrumental endpoint. The next four tracks don’t stray far from this approach, though each offers an excellent variation on a theme: “Eclosion” showing off a greater contrast between metal and shoegaze rather than blurring the lines, “Je Suis d’Ailleurs” achieving a Sigur Rós-like gorgeousness through a wall of guitars, and the outstanding “Oiseaux de Proie” surging from a dark tension into the most gloriously aggressive moment on the album, Neige breaking out from his melodic singing into a piercing, cathartic scream.
With the closing track “Onyx,” Alcest don’t just reaffirm their allegiance for darker and noisier sounds but take a step forward into some more abstract territory. It’s less a proper rock song than a thunderous ambient track—less of an oxymoron than that might sound—that follows 38 minutes of the band’s best melodic material with a strange post-script that feels like a gateway into something heavier and angrier. Yet as intriguing as that seems, it’s not anger that drives Alcest’s best songs. Alcest don’t so much modify shoegaze by making it heavier as they offer an intriguing take on metal by focusing their approach on making it prettier. Their strength is in grace, and Kodama makes its heaviest impact by finding moments of warmth and calm within the storm.