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Between Two Worlds: Alcest Discuss The Psychic Crisis of 'Spiritual Instinct'

Monday, 14 October 2019 Written by Matt Mills

“I had some flashes and visions of a place that didn’t look anywhere close to something real. I have no idea why I had this, or where it came from. It was somewhere very magical—the most beautiful thing you could ever think about. I don’t know what to call it, I don’t know what it is. I just know it has transformed me.”

Stéphane Paut is describing his first memory. For many, that would be something from our early childhood: perhaps a trip to Disneyland, or the day we started preschool. For him, however, it's a series of divine, abstract images, which he believes emanate from a time before his own birth. “It sounds strange, but I believe in life after life and life before life,” he elaborates. “Maybe some memories weren’t erased.”

At this very moment, Stéphane is 34 years old. Over the last 19 of those years, he has become better known by his mononymous stage name, Neige, and as the leader of the aetherial metal idols Alcest. The band’s defining mission statement: to recreate, through beautiful melodies and emotive heaviness, the bliss of Neige’s first memory.

Alcest’s pursuit of psychic enlightenment has directed the project through a diverse musical journey. Their songs have the capacity for tremendous, patient, shoegaze-like beauty, as well as an intense, metallic urgency, born from Neige’s eagerness to return to his personal Elysium. 

Their upcoming sixth album, ‘Spiritual Instinct’, however, is notably closer to the agitated end of the band’s canon. Alcest’s penchant for heavenly soundscapes remains, but their riffs are now more direct and urgent than ever before. Meanwhile, Neige himself often explodes with anguished, screaming vocals, roaring out in search of understanding.

“This album talks about how I try to apply my spirituality to my very ordinary human life, and how I live with my darkness,” he says. “I always feel like I have one foot here and one foot in my other world. That creates a lot of anxiety and tension, and that’s where [the] heaviness comes from.”

After almost three-and-a-half decades, Neige is audibly frustrated at his lifelong placement half in reality and half in the metaphysical. “I’ve always felt that I don’t really fit in in this world,” he admits. “Because of my experience, it’s like I’m too alien or too different.”

In the real world, Neige is a perennial outsider. It has been that way ever since his childhood. He was raised in Bagnols-sur-Cèze: a small, isolated township a little over 100 kilometres from Montpellier. At age 12, he fell in love with the existential rebellion of alternative rock, especially Nirvana. 

His discovery of black metal followed very shortly after, when he was exposed to the morbid theatricality of Cradle of Filth, leading him even further from mainstream social conformity. “There was no transition through heavy metal or thrash metal,” he recalls, before laughing: “I went straight from rock to black metal.”

It would be the soft, dulcet emotion of Nirvana melded with the vigour of black metal that became the cornerstone of Alcest’s musical formula. For the time being, though, Neige was infatuated with the dark side, becoming a fast devotee to the cult of extreme, antagonistic metal. He started Alcest as a solo project and recorded its first demo, ‘Tristesse Hivernale’, when he was just 15. “That demo, for me, is not Alcest,” Neige reflects today. “It’s just me trying to play black metal. I should have changed the [band’s] name [afterwards], because it’s not the same thing at all.”

‘Tristesse Hivernale’ is far more aggressive than anything Alcest have attempted since, even ‘Spiritual Instinct’. Unlike all of the material that followed, there was no otherworldly inspiration, nor sweet melodicism; just primitive, angst-driven mania.

Nonetheless, through his demo’s allegiance to archetypical black metal, Neige had finally found a culture where he seemed to fit in. The genre was an underground titan throughout his home country, coming in the wake of the success of Les Légions Noires: a sect of influential bands centred around Brittany. One of the record labels essential to the spread of that movement, Drakkar, would even sign Alcest for the wider release of ‘Tristesse Hivernale’.

Neige was a prolific figure in the Southern French black metal scene during his mid-to-late teens. This was not only through Alcest, but also a now-controversial stint as the drummer of contemporaries Peste Noire, whose members lived in the nearby town of Avignon and had helped him record ‘Tristesse Hivernale’. 

With hindsight, Neige dubs this tenure as one of his biggest regrets. Peste Noire are less well-known for their music than for their far-right views and racist imagery, which Alcest have since publicly disowned. “I was never into the ideas of the band,” Neige clarifies. “I was naive enough to think that just being a musician in a band like that didn’t mean anything. But, that really does mean something, and that was my mistake. I was a teenager when I joined, but it’s still a big regret that I have.”

Neige gradually grew distant from Peste Noire—and traditional black metal as a whole—as he progressed into adulthood. By the time the band were making their first album, the musician had limited himself strictly to a session-only role. He appeared only on a select number of songs, filling in on whatever instrument was required of him, before stepping down entirely a couple of years later.

Concurrently, Neige was only becoming increasingly infatuated with the fantastical world within his memories. He was isolated once again but, this time, was able to use that to his advantage, following his own muse rather than that of a wider (and often elitist) subculture. Alcest were resurrected with the 2005 EP ‘Le Secret’ and not only had a more gorgeous sound; they were given a unique, spiritual purpose.

“Between doing darkness or doing something very personal, it’s not difficult to choose,” Neige says. “I had something extremely strong to express. My experience, it changed my life completely and there isn’t a single day where I don’t think about it, [but] it’s not possible to talk about. I didn’t have a body, I was just a soul, so there was no way to perceive what was around me. That’s why I decided to make music about it. I am describing that space with feelings, instead of words and concepts.”

Musically, ‘Le Secret’ marked the commencement of Alcest’s self-dubbed “spiritual quest”—a quest that, 14 years later, Neige considers himself as having summarised and encapsulated on ‘Spiritual Instinct’.

“Alcest is a small glimpse into the otherworldly. I hope that, by the time it’s over, I will have left behind a concrete mark of what I might have seen in this other world. I hope that, at the end of this journey, it will look like something really nice.”

‘Spiritual Instinct’ is out on October 25 via Nuclear Blast.

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