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Les Voyages de L’Âme Brad Sanders , January 18th, 2012 12:02

When Alcest's debut LP Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde dropped in 2007, no one in the metal world had heard anything quite like it. Neige, then the French band's only member, had the audacity to stand with one foot firmly in the perceived hipster mecca of shoegaze and the other somewhere on the hillside from the cover of Burzum's Filosofem. The album sent shockwaves through its ostensible genre that culminated in the inane (and still active) debate over what it means to be black metal and whether positivist philosophy and tremolo picking can peaceably coexist.

Two albums and five years later, Alcest are a fixture in the international black metal scene. Neige, full-time drummer Winterhalter, and session members Zero and Fursy Teyssier have toured the world twice and are about to embark on a third trip. 2009's Écailles de Lune was heralded as a crossover masterpiece, beardy dudes bring their non-hesher girlfriends to Alcest shows, members of the corpse-painting community remain outraged, and all is as it is meant to be. The freshness that initially made Neige's most personal project relevant has all dried up. The release of Les Voyages de L'Âme forces us to decide if Alcest music is good even when they're no longer interesting.

By the first appearance of vocals on album opener 'Autre Temps', it's evident that it is. What follows is 50 minutes of shimmering, gorgeous black metal that is, if not as important as Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde or Écailles de Lune, is just as excellent. Located sonically somewhere on the spectrum between their two previous full-lengths, it's the band's most mature work to date and perhaps the only one that feels like a true album, with a logic to its sequencing reflected in a true beginning, middle and end. Closing track 'Summer's Glory' manages to feel like a catharsis even after an album that mostly feels good.

The debate over whether Alcest is black metal is boring by now, but Voyages will undoubtedly reignite it. Even within individual songs, like the far-and-away highlight 'Là Où Naissent Les Couleurs Nouvelles', distorted tremolo picking, blastbeat drumming, and harsh vocals coexist with childlike cooing, tambourine, and gently finger-picked clean guitar. We should be at a point where this ceases to be perplexing and is simply something to be thankful for. If a band as talented as Alcest wants to exploit the black metal framework as a vessel for sheer unadulterated beauty, by God, we should let them.

Les Voyages de l'Âme is probably not the best Alcest album. It might even be the worst one. It's impossible to know how much of this has to do with how much more novel the idea of blending black metal and shoegaze was earlier in the band's career. It ultimately doesn't matter. Voyages is not the best Alcest album and yet it is a great album, which makes Alcest a truly great band. Even at a time when so many of those are forming within the black metal idiom, Alcest stand alone. Greatness is their new standard, and it should be exciting to watch them try to maintain it.