Alcest Illuminate the Dawn on “Les Chants de l’Aurore” (Interview)

Published: June 21, 2024

Alcest’s Stéphane “Neige” Paut has spoken at length about a place he discovered when he was young. Nobody has visited it but him, though he believed everyone had a place like it for years. While it eludes definition, Neige has been providing insight into what it’s like since Alcest’s debut album Souvenirs d’un autre monde in 2007. His interpretations have varied throughout the last decade–some delicate, others astral–but they’ve all been attempts at communicating what he found in that place to those who cannot access it. Through this lens, Alcest’s latest album, Les Chants de l’Aurore, is a return of sorts for Neige because, as he says, “It feels great for me to see that after all these years I can still come back to the same mindset I was in when I made my first album.”

Les Chants de l’Aurore is in no way the same album as Alcest’s debut. That’s not what Neige is implying nor what he’s striving for. There are many reasons why he could never make it again; he only started listening to shoegaze after Souvenirs d’un autre monde, blackgaze went from a novel approach to a recognizable subgenre, and his personal strifes while writing Les Chants de l’Aurore. What he’s saying is that his connection to this place and his ability to conjure it through music is just as strong as it was with Souvenirs d’un autre monde 14 years ago. 

“I started this band because I had a spiritual experience as a child which changed how I see life. I had some visions or memories of a different place, not a place like here. It took me years to process that, and I still don’t know exactly what I had,” he says. “When I was a teenager, I thought it could be cool to make a music project to speak about this experience. So it starts from this personal place and it’s still the same today.”

That’s all the more satisfying for him, given his reply when asked if this place has changed. “I’m less connected to it now because I’m older. The memories of my real life have replaced my childhood memories of that place.”

It’s from this place that Neige calls “some kind of heaven” that he draws his (in his own words) “weird music,” though that’s not the first word that comes to mind when listening to Les Chants de l’Aurore. That word would be ‘gorgeous’. Alcest has never been this outwardly beautiful, not even on Shelter, the album in which they dedicated themselves to shoegaze. It packages the wandering eyes of early Alcest with the wisdom of hindsight. Even tracks that lean heavily on Alcest’s black metal roots like “L’enfant de la Lune” roll into lush pastures. Neige’s mindset while writing was that the rest of metal is dark, so why does he have to be?

“I always wondered why there weren’t more bands trying to use the same tools, like heavy guitar and drums and stuff, and expressing completely different feelings. It’s a mystery for me because that’s not what comes to me naturally. I don’t want to write dark riffs and depressing melodies,” he says. 

That lightness pushes some away from Alcest. They don’t connect with it because it is something rarely heard in metal–fragility. However, Neige will be the first to tell you he’s not making black metal. It’s part of Alcest’s biology, but it’s not the dominant gene. Their fragility is grounded in nostalgia and melancholy, two of Neige’s favorite words when describing his music, rather than nihilism. Negative emotions just aren’t a part of Alcest. Neige is all too aware of that and recognizes it’s an obstacle that Alcest still faces because they are working with tools that are dark in essence. 

Those tools defined Alcest’s previous album, Spiritual Instinct. Their most straightforward release, it relied on conventional metal traits for its crisp edges. The gulf between it and Les Chants de l’Aurore is vast, primarily because the latter communicates through jubilance. Neige attributes this shift, and Spiritual Instinct’s heaviness, to a lack of studio of time and resources. 

“I wanted this album [Les Chants de l’Aurore] to be rich in sounds, not just guitars, bass, and drums, which is what Spiritual Instinct was. That one was more riff-based, whereas this one is more texture-based. I love minimal classical music, so I wanted to make a track like “Réminiscence” with just piano and vocals.”

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This drive led Neige and drummer Jean “Winterhalter” Deflandre to build their own recording studio and acquire more gear. Although Winterhalter is the gearhead of the two, Neige also hungered for more equipment to deepen the album’s texture. One key instrument among the many they used is Neige’s grandmother’s piano, the one he learned to play music on when he was a child, the one his entire family learned to play music on, and the one that’s over 90 years old. “It sounds like it’s been used and has a ton of soul and character. I thought it would be cool to give it immortality by recording it,” he says. 

While Les Chants de l’Aurore’s levity can be attributed to the freedom of a new recording studio, it’s also a reaction to Neige’s personal growth over the last few years. By the time Spiritual Instinct released in 2019, Alcest had been touring for a decade straight and releasing music on a consistent basis. The COVID pandemic soon followed. The ensuing lockdowns gave Neige the time to address his burnout and a vile case of writer’s block.

Every day for a year, he tried playing guitar, and every day, he came back fearing that he might’ve lost it. To him, nothing he was making was good enough for Alcest. He worried that he might have to start working for the post office (Fenriz would approve). Though he was scant on details during our conversation, he revealed how writing Les Chants de l’Aurore helped him.

“I understand artists and that they are being fueled by the negativity in the world these days and it’s a great topic for their inspiration. But I thought, why not do the opposite? Why make people feel even worse with depressing music? Why not bring people to a better place with music? A place that still has beauty. It’s also why I wanted to make such an uplifting album. Also, it had been difficult for me on a personal level so I needed to cheer myself up a bit.” 

This is best felt in “Reminiscence,” a two-minute piano ballad that plays to Neige’s interest in Satie and Debussy. It pierces beyond the first layers of the brain that would decry such a piece as saccharine. That’s because Neige made it for himself. There are no lyrics or structure, as if it was recorded on the spot and embellished post-production. Because of that, it’s tender. And that place Neige holds so fondly sits at its center, flowing outwards wordlessly because that’s how he can best describe it.

“A lot of people decide to make music because they have a hard time expressing their feelings with words. It’s difficult to convey their emotions by talking, so that’s why I started to make music. I had something to say. And it still feels like the best way for me, to this day, which is why it feels genuine. I’m not trying to please someone, the fans, or the label. I mainly do it for me. If people like it, that’s great.”

Les Chants de L’Aurore is out now via Nucelar Blast.

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