French metallers ALCEST have spent the last decade evolving from their earlier beginnings as a band that seemed torn between moody melody and black metal trappings to stand tall in the corner of the metallic spectrum that is fully immersed in hypnotic shoe-gaze elements. "Les Voyages de l'Âme" (2012) saw them pull off an impressive juggling act of their earlier influences and the ambitions to come. "Shelter" (2014) was a masterful display of post-rock atmospherics. Two years later, 2016's "Kodama" saw them reintegrate some heavier elements while still moving forward. Unfortunately, the band appears to have run out of steam and finally hit the wall on their latest effort, "Spiritual Instinct".
The album gets off to a promising start with "Les Jardins De Minuit". A hard-driving bassline begins the track and sets the mood before the listener is bombarded with a black-gaze barrage, as band leader Niege's ethereal chants and croons are layered above a blistering drumming performance from Winterhalter, who shines throughout the record on double-bass bursts and jazzier moments. The production pops with an arena-level sound, and Niege brings the track to a satisfying close with a powerful burst of caustic howls and shrieks.
The album opener is the peak of the record though, and what follows is a disappointing wander of a record that uses the same musical tools ALCEST have utilized in the past to great results, but this time the roads they travel lead to a dead end. "Protection" is another track that blends their proggier ambitions with equal emphasis on melody and metallic howls, but doesn't seem to really build to a proper conclusion. Neige generates the mightiest screams of the record on "Sapphire", but those bellows are very brief and only come after three minutes of musical meandering that sounds like a European spin on the worst excesses of TOOL's forays into prog rock.
"L'île Des Morts" is a moody track with engaging moments spread throughout, but those are sidetracked by quieter interludes that do more to break the momentum than build it. The opening of "Le Miroir" is punctuated by a single keyboard riff that is repeated in a haunting manner, tribal drumming, and goth-like crooning from Niege, but as the five-minute track ends, it never feels like any of the puzzle pieces were put together to form a complete picture. The closing title track is good technically and on the surface sounds like a path that ALCEST has traveled on previous records, but in the end comes off as emotionless and anti-climactic.
The musical journey that ALCEST has explored in recent years has been one that paid off on previous records. "Spiritual Instinct" gives off the aura of a car with mileage that still has a great-looking body and an engine that still functions well. It might be time to change the battery though.