Album: Kodama (2016)
Where to buy: here
Kodama is a different sort of metal than I’ve previously reviewed. Alcest is often credited with pioneering the blackgaze genre (a name that makes me tug my collar a bit), which is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of the shoegaze and black metal sounds. The French group, inspired by the themes of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), uses fast-picked guitar lines and lots of sixteenth-note drum fills to construct walls of sound, interrupted infrequently by vocals, sometimes sung, sometimes screamed. Individual words are stretched out over multiple bars, pushed to the next line in a lyric by the current of guitars and drums. The sound reminds me distinctly of the harder parts of The Smashing Pumpkins’s oeuvre, though Kodama manages to not be merely the next step in -gaze evolution, thanks mostly to their creative use of melody, the album’s thematic content, and the sense of control present in every song.
You’ll notice right away that the production is excellent. The mastering is beautiful and considered, resulting in a very mature sound. The instruments are carefully and logically layered in order to create a huge sound. The intention here is palpable, and even though I tend to find this subgenre boring, Alcest clearly succeeds in achieving their sonic goal. The dynamic range of each song is tremendous, all of them featuring well-placed diminuendos. Some of these quiet moments serve to break up a longer song into two distinct movements. The opening track, “Kodama,” which starts with a distorted guitar line that glues together the drums and vocals until it fades into a grand pause at the five-and-a-half minute mark; this leads to a slower, pizzicato-driven progression that builds into a full sound and eventually closes out the song.
Much -gaze music lacks melody or really anything memorable or musically distinct, preferring to fill aural space with straightforward progressions that go on and on. To their credit, Alcest chooses to write actual melodies, some of which you’ll find yourself humming long after the album ends. Some of them are hampered by the screamed vocals, which unfortunately do not add much to the music that wasn’t present in the mix already. But for the most part the melodies are creative and enjoyable. “Untouched” and “Je suis d’ailleurs” both make use of beautiful melodic progressions to anchor their lyrics and interludes. That said, there are moments in each song here that go on too long, becoming uninteresting after 16- or 32-bar repetitions of almost the same sound.
Kodama paints a picture of another world, related in content to Princess Mononoke. Lyrics point to “the wounded earth / ill at heart” and creatures “not from this land,” evoking the dual-world theme present in the film (though in the film the two worlds, the natural forest and the industrial city, are at war). “Eclosion” can be easily read from the perspective of the corrupted boar god, Nago: “Pierce the thick skin / that weighs upon my shoulders,” “do not let them tarnish [my soul].” The lyrics are constructed, however, such that one need not be familiar with the film to appreciate the sensibility of the songs. Likely an intentional decision on Alcest’s part, this is a clever way to give fans another door to the lyrics.
This leads me to my final point: Alcest is in control. Each note, each musical layer, each mastering decision is clearly the result of lots of thought and deliberation. Kodama successfully unites elements of black metal and shoegaze into what may be the best possible combination of the two genres. Parts of it drag, even on a 42-minute album, but on the whole it’s a lot more interesting than most shoegaze and a lot of black metal.