Though he was raised in a vibrant French black metal scene, Alcest frontman Neige outgrew the rage and nihilism of the genre and strived to craft something that’s just as powerful but far more beautiful. Drawing on his classical guitar training and his love for Celtic melodies and soundtrack composers, he developed Alcest, following the raw 2001 black metal-based demo Tristesse Hivernale with the 2005 EP Le Secret (which was recently re-recorded), which began with the sounds of soft rain and chirping birds and revealed Neige’s taste for simple acoustic beauty before advancing and receding through electrifying waves of guitar distortion, crashing beats and vocals that shifted from soft and vaporous to roaring and savage.
“I will not deny there is black-metal roots in Alcest, but for me this music is so far from black metal in terms of concept and feeling that I really don’t like to include myself in that category,” says Neige. “Black metal is about dark and negative things and I feel like Alcest is very positive and not angry at all. When I’m writing, I just find that if clear singing is not powerful enough, I’ll scream.”
The more Alcest has experimented with style and structure, the less Neige has screamed to express power. On the band’s latest, Les Voyages de l’Ã‚me, Neige constructs more subtle and accomplished songs that shift between angelic shimmering and celestial buzzing eschewing metal’s angry crunch and grind for something far more serene and reflective. The vocals are all in French, but even a monolingual American can tell Neige is singing about dream worlds and heavenly vistas. eMusic’s Jon Wiederhorn talked with Neige shortly before Alcest’s only South by Southwest appearance, a gig opening for the brutal and terrifying Nachtmystium.
On childhood out-of-body excursions:
When I was five or six years old I had a moment of extra-sensitivity that brought me somewhere else, a place that doesn’t belong to this world. It was the most beautiful place you could imagine, bathed in golden light with streams and huge trees. The images weren’t of this life, I was too young to invent them and it was definitely not a dream. But every Alcest song, every picture, every word is made to recreate these visions I had and the emotions associated with them. I started Alcest when I was 14 and I saw it as something I had to do. It was like a duty, a chance to show these things to people and not keep it from them. Alcest is much more than music to me.
On discovering black metal and confounding devil-horn raising Mayhem fans:
I have known my friend Fursy, who plays guitar in Alcest and is in Les Discrets, since we were little kids. We went to school together and one day he bought an Aardschok magazine with black metal bands on the cover. We were very young and were impressed by the pictures of musicians covered in blood. Before that, I just listened to Nirvana or Iron Maiden, but when I discovered black metal it was like a slap in the face. I felt like this music was made for me. It fit my state of mind at the time and even though a lot of it was brutal, I feel like it’s very far away from humanity and far away from this world. I discovered all the Norwegian classics — the old Burzum and Darkthrone, the first Emperor — and later, this Swiss ambient black metal band Paysage D’Hiver, who experimented with different textures. And I am a huge Summoning fan. So some people still associate me with black metal, which causes confusion. In Australia we played a show for black-metal fans and as soon as the first blastbeat started, the guys went crazy and started to mosh and fight. But it was really stupid because Zero was singing clean vocals in very high pitches, and they were very soft and angelic.
On Celtic music and British shoegazers:
Slowdive is my very favorite band ever. I just can’t stop listening to them. I understand why people compare me to them. But it’s very strange. I only discovered shoegaze music after critics compared the first Alcest record to My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. I grew up listening to black metal and traditional Irish folk music. I don’t like 90 percent of Celtic music. It’s too light and poppy for me. But the deeper stuff is really wonderful and nothing touches me more than a really beautiful Celtic melody. So we play a bit of Celtic Irish melodies on minor scales. But now I really like this shoegaze music, also. Aside from Slowdive, I like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, of course, and Ride’s Nowhere, which is great shoegaze pop. I also like The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy and Cocteau Twins’ Treasure. Some people have said we like post-rock a well, but not really. There is a song by Explosions in the Sky, “Your Hand in Mine,” that is really gorgeous and I like one or two songs by Sigur RÃ³s. But usually post rock makes me fall asleep. The songs are too long and too soft for me.
On sadness, ambiguity and zombies:
The last Alcest album, Ã‰cailles de Lune, was too much influenced by my real life, so it was very melancholy and a bit darker than the new record. Some people really like it, but for me it’s very different from the green, luminous and uplifting sounds I want in Alcest. The newest album is melancholy, but for me there’s an ambiguous balance between happiness and melancholy in Alcest. I think the most intense emotion you can have is when you don’t know if you are happy or sad. And to be sad is okay, but it’s very different than depression. I don’t think there is any sparkle of real depression in Alcest. It doesn’t put you down. You feel alive. You don’t feel like a zombie when you listen to Alcest.
On dinosaurs of French shoegaze metal:
Fursy and I started a different band Amesoeurs when we were living in the countryside and we had a very romantic vision of the city. We dedicated the band to modernity and the night life, but at the same time we were criticizing the way urbanity sometimes makes people feel empty and they lose their purity. We imagined the city to be like a giant monster, but we were very fascinated by the concrete and gray world we imagined. For me, it was the perfect opposite of Alcest. There were similarities in the music because I composed 95 percent of the Amesoeurs music. But I was influenced by Joy Division and Depeche Mode. Alcest felt much more pure to me.
On drugs and spirituality:
I haven’t smoked marijuana since I was 15 and I don’t take drugs or compose with alcohol or anything mind-altering. Some fans have said, “I tried LSD and what I saw was very similar to the visions you’ve seen.” I think if I tried to take LSD or other hallucinogens I would go too far. I am crazy enough sober. I just think as human beings we are extremely limited in terms of senses, so the world that we see is not real because there are many things we cannot see. Some animals can hear sounds that we cannot hear; it’s like that. I believe in life after life, but for me, that’s spirituality, not religion, and if there is a God or superior energy, I don’t think it’s this perceived human shape in the heavens that judges people.