French atmospheric metal band Alcest have just released their sixth album, Spiritual Instinct. The LP continues the band’s ethereal blend of extreme metal and post-rock, this time in a more clear and streamlined fashion than before. The songs are shorter, the riffs are heavier, and singer-guitarist Neige sounds invigorated.
Alcest remain one of underground metal’s most influential bands. Their mixture of shoegaze, post-rock and extreme heavy metal helped kick-start the popularity of atmospheric black metal. Alcest were a direct influence on California’s Deafheaven, and Neige made a guest appearance on their breakout album, Sunbather.
Spiritual Instinct comes at a time when Alcest is more popular than they’ve ever been — it was written after a long tour for their fifth album, Kodama, which hit #8 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart.
Alcest were not always so esteemed — when Neige released the first Alcest demo, Le Secret, in 2005 it was hated on by many in the black metal community. When Neige added drummer Winterhalter for the band’s debut album, Souvenirs d’un autre monde, they received the same scrutiny. Now both records are hailed as modern classics.
Neige candidly spoke to Heavy Consequence about how writing Spiritual Instinct brought him out of one of the darkest periods of his life, and explained why he’s succeeded in spite of his haters.
On his mindset while writing Spiritual Instinct
When I started to write this album, I didn’t really think much. I was on tour for a while and couldn’t play music. I wasn’t feeling very great, it was a dark place in my life. These songs felt very cathartic. It was an immediate pleasure to write them. Everything happened really fast, and I realized the riffs were very clear, as you say, and very feeling-based. You don’t have to think too much to understand what’s going on. Actually, some people told me it was too simple. I said: simple doesn’t necessarily mean bad. I know it’s simple. I’m not dumb. I know when I am making something simple and something complicated, but I personally like very simple music, too.
On the mental toll of touring the world for their last album, Kodama
I came home and I was in an exhausted state of mind. My body was dead, my mind was lost. I didn’t know who I was anymore, because I am the kind of person who needs some time alone to do my thing. On tour you’re never alone. Even for a band like Alcest that seems to be otherworldly, touring life is the same for everyone. It’s very down to earth. Spirituality has been very important for me for as long as I can remember, and touring life is very different from spiritual life. I like being connected to nature, and I lost touch with that. Spiritual Instinct is this violent coming back to my inner spirituality and my essence. Through this album I managed to find myself again.
Some bands play music together but don’t necessarily share many things. I’m lucky to have great bandmates. We have an amazing relationship. It’s just being on tour is so technical and predictable. I’m not the toughest person in the world. I need to rest for my body and my mind, and touring is super harsh.
The tours themselves were great. We love to meet the fans, we have a very close relationship to them and we like to talk to them. So that was great. It was just impossible to be alone at any moment. I need a home routine, so when I am on tour I now try to recreate my home routine, so maybe that will help. But my favorite part of making music is writing, it’s not necessarily to be onstage.
On writing music using technology
I use an electric guitar but I don’t have any fancy equipment to record myself. I just use my phone. It’s very basic. I repeat the song over and over until I have a structure. Then, I record a demo on Logic. At any given moment it’s very simple. I don’t like technology and I’m very bad with computers. The best moment is when you find something, when out of nowhere something comes through you and takes shape in a musical form. It’s a magical feeling, because you don’t know why it happens and how. Creativity is so enigmatic.
On Spiritual Instinct’s first single “Protection”
[The first song for Spiritual Instinct that I wrote] was “Protection”, the first single. It’s the same every time; the first two songs really define the sound of the record. Having written “Protection”, I knew the record would be different, heavy and direct. That was a very important song in that aspect. It was also the first time in ages that I wrote a song in one day. “Protection” was very spontaneous, which never happens to me. Instinct is in the title of the record and it’s very important. The whole writing was very instinctive. Just to stay in the meaning of the title — I didn’t choose spirituality. It’s just been a part of me since forever. It’s something as important as any other needs that I can have.
On why he chose a sphinx for the cover of Spiritual Instinct, and its relationship to spirituality
The monster has an almost human face. I can instantly recognize myself in this creature because I’ve always kind of felt like an outsider in the place where I grew up in the south of France, or even in my musical career. I was always a little bit away from the different metal zines. I couldn’t really find my place. I can relate to this creature. I have many sides to my psychology. I can be very anxious, sometimes even depressed with a lot of doubt and problems with self-confidence, but I can also be very spiritual and reach for something higher and uplifting.
The sphinx is all of these sides combined. It is a symbol of the enigma. It’s a symbol for questioning. That’s what spirituality is. It’s a big question mark. What is going to happen to us when we die? Do we have a soul? Are we really human in our deep essence? For me the sphinx was a great way to represent the questions you have on a spiritual journey. The records really don’t offer any answers because I don’t have the answers myself. If I was christian or part of an organized belief I would pretend to have the answers, but I don’t. I think people who pretend to know the essence of god or the meaning of life are very arrogant. It’s super pretentious to pretend that you know what’s beyond all this.
On his relationship with black metal and the backlash his first records received
A lot of people are into metal who are also into esoteric stuff looking at the dark side. This is something I never understood. Why does it always have to be dark? That’s why the first Alcest album was very conflicting when it came out. People were wondering, “What is this bright, fragile music?” I just didn’t want to speak about darkness and hate. That’s not a subject that interests me. I still listen to a lot of old-school black metal but some of the newer bands are very lazy. It’s so conventional to fit to certain codes, and metal when it started was anything but conventional. It’s a shame.
[The reception to my albums is] much better now. The thing people used to say was “Alcest is gay.” I’m sure some people still say this. At the beginning there were super strong opinions, but now, thanks to bands like Deafheaven that came after us, it’s become more accepted. But in the beginning it was pretty extreme.
On Deafheaven and their album Sunbather, on which he performed
I think they succeeded not because of the pink cover but because everything was coherent and made sense. The way they looked, the lyrics, where they came from. It’s very psychological metal. It’s not about demons and fire and woods and castle. It’s not black metal, to me, but I don’t think they ever pretended to be black metal. It’s just like Alcest. People were not happy that a band like Alcest of Deafheaven could exist. But we don’t play black metal. It’s not like just because you tremolo pick and play blast beats you’re playing black metal. In black metal you have the word “black” — for me it’s an inhuman, spiritual on the dark side kind of music and that’s not what we do.