French “Blackgaze” pioneering duo Alcest are back with Kodama, their fifth album. Unlike 2014’s Shelter, which featured instrumentalist/singer Neige and drummer Winterhalter abandoning all extreme metal pretenses in favor of lush, beautiful soundscapes, Kodama has the band revisiting their black metal roots while also continuing to push forward with their shoegaze compositions, this time with an overall Japanese theme.
Kodama is short and sweet – six songs, forty-three minutes, and with song lengths varying from three to nine minutes. The compositions seek to express the duality of the theme (loosely based upon the princess character from Japanese anime film Princess Mononoke).
Album opener and title track “Kodama” is the longest song on the album, a sprawling, ambitious number lasting over nine minutes. It features some lovely, sweeping guitar chords underneath Neige’s clean, airy vocals, and straddles the line between shoegaze and metal quite effectively. It is definitely too long, though. When the song finished, I could swear I had listened to two songs.
“Eclosion” starts off in similar fashion to “Kodama,” with reverb- and delay-drenched clean chords, big drums, and airy falsetto vocals, almost like a stripped-down Anathema song. But a surprise is in store: less than three minutes in Neige lets loose with black metal vocals, adding a welcome juxtaposition to the music. The music is still epic and expansive, but the switch between clean and harsh vocals is refreshing.
“Je Suis D’Ailleurs” and “Oiseaux de Proie” follow a similar template as “Eclosion” with equal effectiveness. The songs sound great and stand up well on their own, but when taken in context with the rest of Kodama, they invoke a certain sameness to the proceedings. In a way this is at the core of Alcest’s blackgaze style, but they could probably break away a little more from this template. The arrangements are just too similar.
“Untouched” and “Onyx” are the shortest songs on the album and do break away, the former like a short, melancholic version of the title track and the latter album closer an ambient soundscape, just Neige and his instruments, no vocals or drums, to wind things down.
Kodama is a welcome return to form for Alcest. Although the album is short by today’s standards, it is actually the perfect length to avoid filler songs. More artists should take note, and not bloat albums to CD capacity with subpar songs.
Blackgaze as an artform isn’t for everyone, but those with patience willing to give Kodama a spin will be rewarded with a concise, beautifully sounding record. It’s not perfect: as one might expect from this genre, the songs tend to blend into one another and boredom can set in, but overall, fans of Alcest will be happy with this one.
(released September 30, 2016 on Prophecy Productions)