Like so many young people who turn to music, Stephane Paut — the frontman and driving force behind French metal outfit Alcest — felt profoundly out of place growing up in Bagnols-sur-Ceze, a town of fewer than 20,000 inhabitants located at the edge of the French region of Provence. Paut (pronounced “poe”), who goes by the stage name Neige (which is French for “snow”), chuckles when he describes his hometown.
“It’s crazy,” he says on a Skype call from Paris, his adoptive home, “because Provence is so beautiful. It’s gorgeous, like a postcard. But the city is really, really not interesting at all. Everything around is amazing, but the city sucks. It’s like this butthole in the south of France where nothing ever happens. I didn’t feel like I was in the right place.”
It wasn’t just the town’s featurelessness that contributed to Paut’s sense of dislocation. He had other strikes against him when it came to fitting in. “I was a bit of a dreamer,” he says, “and I was very into drawing. In the South of France, the mentality is very harsh. It’s very macho. Guys are supposed to be a certain way, and you’re supposed to like football.” No one around him placed much value on music. Aside from drawing, Paut found solace in the raw aggression of black-metal groups like Emperor. But he was equally attracted to the bright-sounding major chords of Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 alt-rock classic Siamese Dream, his favorite album of all time.
Paut has leaned closer to the Pumpkins than Emperor with Alcest. And though he’s by no means the first artist to infuse black metal with shoegaze textures, Alcest always has stood out for its singular balance between sparkle and abrasion. However, on its sixth album, Spiritual Instinct (Oct. 25, Nuclear Blast), Paut has crafted a particularly seamless fusion of black metal-style dissonance with the thickly layered guitar orchestrations of alternative rock. The record also features cosmic tones and guitar effects that recall seminal space-rock groups like Failure and Cave In.
Listening to Spiritual Instinct’s sumptuous mix, one can imagine a parallel universe where a new Alcest song like second single “Sapphire” plays on mainstream alt-rock radio, its driving riff and soaring verse melody right at home alongside the likes of Tool and System of a Down. By the same token, it’s easy to picture the airy brooding of “Le Miroir” finding favor among laced-up goths. And as utterly accessible as the melodies on Spiritual Instinct might be at times, the music isn’t likely to turn off discerning, pop-averse listeners who favor street-credible acts like Jesu, Boris and SunnO))).
Watch the video for “Sapphire” below:
Hypotheticals aside, in terms of pure creative achievement, Alcest has pulled off a kind of coup. Though Paut has long refused to describe the group as black metal, his trilling guitar riff in combination with drummer Jean “Winterhalter” Deflandre’s blast beats at the beginning of “Les Jardins de Minuit” create the kind static cloud the genre was built on. That said, Spiritual Instinct’s delicate features, loving attention to sonic detail and distinct balance of moods are supported by black metal’s basic foundations in ways that couldn’t have been anticipated when the genre first emerged three decades ago. Looking back on Paut’s story, he was bound to circumvent the music’s rigidly codified standards.
For one, despite how out of step he has felt since childhood, Paut didn’t form Alcest as a vehicle to express rage. While he empathizes with Norwegian black-metal musicians who draw inspiration from their natural surroundings, Paut comes across more like an animist — a deeply contemplative Thoreau-like figure exalting the life force in all things — than someone who ever wore corpse paint and drew pentagrams in the woods. He also stresses that he means for Alcest’s music to convey a sense of hope.
When Paut was about 5 years old, he started having what he describes as extrasensory visions. He later learned that these visions, which would occur when he was conscious (along with a feeling of leaving his body), closely resembled the sensations commonly referred to as near-death experiences — only without the near-death component. Paut estimates that the visions persisted for about four years before they abruptly ceased. He has spoken often in the press about how they shaped his life, along with his conviction that another realm exists beyond our material universe. (In a video trailer where he discusses Spiritual Instinct’s themes and album artwork, Paut says that Alcest’s music “is breathing spirituality.”)
But unlike the nightmarish afterworld played up by countless metal artists, Paut remains comforted by what he saw on the “other side” — even if he felt isolated in his inability to find anyone with whom he could relate enough to discuss it. “It was,” he says, “the most beautiful and indescribable thing that you can imagine. It was beyond words. And I didn’t know what to do with it for many, many years.” Confused, Paut also felt marooned in a world that seemed harsher and much more cruel than the one that briefly tantalized him as a child.
“I’m more or less at the same point of understanding as when it all started,” he says. “Maybe even less so. But it was so strong that it made me who I am. Even if I don’t have direct access to those images anymore, I still feel it [all] in my core. It might sound a bit strange, but I’ve always felt like there’s one part of me that doesn’t really belong [in this physical world]. But I also think we might all not belong to here. We might have a real home that isn’t this. This band is like some kind of quest [to find it].”
Understandably, a streak of sorrow runs through Alcest’s music. And though Paut sings in French, his guitars and vocal intonations convey melancholy in spades. But there’s also something quite romantic in his yearning to find his way back to a magical place he got only passing glimpses of. Not to mention that the pensiveness often gets swept up in a tide of optimism. More than anything else, the fuel that powers Alcest is the assertion that there’s something more beautiful to strive for — a life-affirming sentiment if ever there was one, even if the “life” in question can only be reached in death.
“I started this project because I was feeling very alone having had this experience,” explains Paut with a laugh. “For me, it was like throwing a bottle in the sea and hoping for someone to write you back. When it happens, it’s very, very touching. We get a lot of people who tell us that they lost someone and our music really helped them. That’s the most beautiful feedback you can get.”