“We have each one life”: Alcest’s Les chants de l’aurore


“To grieve for this is burden enough.”

Arriving Friday, June 21, via Nuclear Blast Records, Alcest’s 7th LP Les chants de l’aurore heralds the breaking of a new day. Translated either as The Dawn Songs or, as I prefer, Songs of Dawn, Les Chants abounds with the chances, possibilities, potentialities, and unknowable futures afforded to us by the dawning of the sun. As Neige writes about Les chants, “The place where I’m taking my inspiration from is a place of pure harmony and light. I’m just like everyone else—I’m very anxious, I have my issues and demons, but there is a place inside me which is much more in peace and harmony, so I took inspiration from this part of myself, rather than the dark part.” So let us watch the day dawn, let us feel the sun rise and spill its peace, harmony, and light all over our benighted world.

In this sense, Les chants de l’aurore begins where Euripides’s Alcestis ends. In Euripides’s famous inverted tragedy, one that, as Richmond Lattimore claims progresses from “ruin to safety,” Alcestis has agreed to give up her life to save the life of her husband Admetus. Ultimately, Heracles bests Death and returns Alcestis to Admetus. Reflecting on this second chance, Admetus declares, “For now we shall make our life again, and it will be / a better one.” This “better,” whatever else it might mean, certainly entails Admetus loving and cherishing the brave Alcestis more in her second life than in her first life and her first death. The undeniably “lucky” Admetus must make good on this second chance, on this opportunity to live better.

Second chances and better lives lie at the heart of Alcestis, and thus at the heart of both Alcest the band and Les chants the album. “Morality itself,” writes Adam Phillips, “begins with the idea of the second chance. Or, to put it differently… the idea of a second chance is a way of imagining ourselves at our best.” Of course and at the risk of biographizing, Neige’s own life and career with Alcest can be seen as a second chance, a second chance made good, after his first chance in a particular act that Neige regrets, understands as immature foolishness, and has disavowed in no uncertain terms. Philips writes, “Time cannot be literally redeemed, or reversed; we cannot go back to the time before the terrible things were done, before we did the terrible things: at the time we meant to do what we did, whatever the consequences may have been. But the question—the question that makes the second chance a possibility—is, What kind of conversations can our ineradicable guilt make possible, or even inspire?” Whether we want to define Neige’s work prior to Alcest as “terrible” or ascribe to him “an ineradicable guilt” is beside the point: what is the point, however, is how might we be inspired when presented with the possibility of a chance to make that second chance a reality? One answer, then, is Les chants de l’aurore.

Album opener “Komorebi” is our first glance at the blossoming dawn of a second chance. Roughly and poorly translated as “the sunlight shining through the trees” but encompassing so much more, the Japanese term “Komorebi” ushers us into a world of untranslatable delicacy and beauty. A cheery, echoing shout of “Hey!” or “Day!” or “Ay!” punctuates an invigorated, radiating tremolo-picked opening—itself a lighthearted response to the more somber and darkened riff of Spiritual Instinct’s “Les jardins de minuit”—before a floating sense of ease cascades over and through Neige’s familiar croon as the band then sets off on their familiar blaze of sun-dappled blackgaze. The cymbals splash and the guitar dances like the morning through unfurling leaves, creating pockets of intertwining shadow and light. We are most comfortably and most excitedly in Neige’s inner world.

Neige’s voice almost sounds like a chorus of sighs, like a collection of exhalations releasing the tightness of our collective chests so that we might press our hearts towards dawn in an act of reverent openness and healing. As “Komorebi” builds towards what feels like an unreachable apex, the song breaks itself open into a miracle at the 3:44 mark with an emo passage that sounds uncannily similar to Moving Mountains’ “Eastern Leaves.” I would never claim that Les chants is an emo album, but if 2019’s Spiritual Instinct was shackled with the melancholia of grunge and ’90s alt-rock, it is not obscene to say that Les chants is suffused with an emotional sensitivity and receptivity that both defines emo as a quixotic genre and captures elegantly the band’s avowed desire “to transport the listener to somewhere different, somewhere better.” Here again is that word “better” in all its ambiguity and potentiality. As Phillips writes, “The as-yet unlived life that is our second chance carries what we presume to be our potential.” “Komorebi” is the dawning of what that second chance, of what our potential might be.

To set such a lofty goal of transporting listeners to “somewhere different, somewhere better” is to set the goal of delivering over to listeners a second chance. “L’envol” and “Améthyste” are glimmering gems, thrown without caution into an ever-lifting wind. The same kind of picked acoustic guitar that blew open “Komorebi” settles “L’envol” into a sweet placidity, one that is buoyed and countenanced by the track’s sense of choral majesty. Bringing together the stunning brightness of Lantlôs and the pacific beatitude of Hammock, the album’s lead single is perfectly situated between “Komorebi” and “Améthyste,” working as an efflorescent bridge between two of the album’s strongest tracks.

What we have come to love as a sort of sacred waltz between Neige’s lilting cleans and caustic screams is reilluminated by the revitalized duo of Neige and Winterhalter. Winterhalter, in particular, is playing drums on Les chants more jubilantly, more vibrantly, more engagingly than on albums past. With a clear, bombastic production that gives everything a rich warmth, Winterhalter bounces deftly around his kit, enlivening each track with an arsenal of blasts, fills, crashes, clinks, rides, and steady-handedness that’s as propulsive as it is celebratory. Winterhalter’s jazzy, shuffling, riling performance provides “Améthyste” with a seductive energy, one that counterbalances the track’s slower, more emotive post-rock moments. Feeling very indebted to Les Discrets and earlier Alcest records and closing on a heightened, exuberant retelling of its central motif, “Améthyste” is a powerful, staggering statement, one that keeps getting louder and more profound with each subsequent, obsessive listen.

Neige further comments on Les chants, “This album is a journey with a beginning and an end that should be listened to as a whole, bringing the listener to various musical landscapes and emotions.” For an album like Les chants to work, each song, or each suite of songs, has to be able to both add up to the whole and stand bravely on its own. Perhaps no track does this quite like second single “Flamme jummelle,” accompanied as it is by a breath-taking and tearful music video. Two dancers—the “twin flames” of the song—act out among rolling mountains, emerald forest lakes, and countryside ruins, a dramatic story of love and loss, birth and rebirth, nature and humanity, wills bending and stiffening, lives moving towards and away from one other. They are synchronized, separated, exalted, and quotidian. “For Winnicott,” writes Phillips, “love is an endless and ongoing process of illusionment and disillusionment—a falling in and out of love that is the definition of love, of love as something that develops and deepens, a repeated and cumulative (and precarious) cycle of first and second chances that can, at any moment, be sabotaged.”

In Phillips’s reading of Winnicott’s object-relations theory, love—real love—is an endless dance of chances, one that requires those inside of it to become disillusioned with each other and themselves, only to be reillusioned on the side of and because of that disillusionment. To say nothing of the song “Flamme jummelle,” which might very well, on its own, already belong in the pantheon of Alcest’s greatest achievements, the story told therein—by both song and video—is this form of Winnicottian love. We watch through misting eyes the dancers embrace, reject, uphold, shrink from, breathe life into, injure, and rejoin one another in this “endless and ongoing process,” one bolstered and made all the more endless and ongoing by the grandeur of the geological processes that created the very settings and scenery of their human drama. “Flamme jummelle,” the twin flame, is not just the pairing of first and second chances but an endless and ongoing dance of them, one created by the one fully lived and regretted and mourned and made of before the second can come into view.

“A second chance,” we are told, “is always an act of remembering, whatever else it is. When we talk about second chances we are talking, by definition, about the workings of memory; the recovery in memory of what may seem now, at least in retrospect, to have been a first chance.” And thus, we are ushered into Les chants final act, beginning as it does with the aptly named “Reminiscence.” It is a short piano interlude buoyed by a bow pulled slowly across strings and Neige’s plaintive voice, imbued with enough pathos to evoke from the listener a wistful gratitude, one that might even be convinced to make us look back, to remember, to dig in our memories in order to decipher what might, we realize, have been our first chance, whatever it was. “I needed to go back into my inner world,” Neige says about the making of Les chants, redirecting his artistic energies from the external tragedies that informed Spiritual Instinct and the even darker Kodama. Similarly to Souvenirs d’un autre mode, Les chants “draws inspiration from the spiritual childhood experiences that have shaped Neige, both as a musician and a human being.”

Perhaps, then, it is a beautiful flowing river of childhood memories that takes us from “Reminiscence” into “L’enfant de la lune” and finally “L’adieu.” Of course, “enfant” means child in French, but it also means, in the original Latin, to be speechless or without language. This is more than “a liberated nosedive into the very notion of consciousness”; rather, this is submersion into the unfettered world of the unconscious, of a time before language, of a time when the child’s life was not structured by the ability to define it verbally and so thus simultaneously larger and smaller than what comes after language’s structuring power. Moreover, we are again sitting under “la lune,” the same moon that shines so brightly, so mystically, on the cover of 2010’s Écailles de lune. We are, all these years later, looking over our beginnings.  “L’enfant de la lune” begins with a voice-over and electronic beat that nods to the eclectic career of Ulver while also reminding me oddly enough of Lust of Youth that then calls to mind, if ever so briefly, in its classic mix of post-rock and black metal, “Là où naissent les couleurs Nouvelles” from Les voyages de l’âme. There’s something quietly simple about “L’enfant de la lune,” a sense that, after everything that’s come before it on Les chants, it is time to set down all pretense and rest. We might be reviewing and rethinking our beginnings, but we are also not there. We are thinking about what it meant to be there, back at our first chance, and we are doing so fully cloaked in the emergent possibilities of the second chance.

“L’adieu” is not so much a goodbye as it is a blissful recitation of the album’s luminosity. As the final act in the three-song suite that closes Les chants, it brings us to where we have been, where we are now, and where we might soon be. As Phillips writes, “Without the whole notion of the second chance, we would have to reimagine hope, and progress, and pleasure. We would have to reimagine what it would be to be, or to have, a character. We may not think of the play we see as a second chance for the rehearsals, or the performed music as a second chance for the practice that had made it possible; but once we do, both preparation and performance look different. More open to innovation, say, or re-creation, or reworking.” Neige has certainly never foreclosed himself to innovation, to re-creation, to reworking. If anything, Alcest is a testament to those very acts, to the very possibilities that bring us to those acts.

This is the very core of the project: without a second chance, what would hope, progress, or pleasure look like? What enervating, lifeless substitutes would we accept instead? As Freud spent much of his later life obsessing over, people are often quite resistant to second chances, “to a life being revised for the better.” Can we think of Alcest, then, as a luminescent sigil of second chances that dissuades the chattering and enclosing darkness of our repetition compulsions? Second chances are “the antidote to any kind of repetition compulsion, or trauma”—they allow us to stop repeating ourselves and “recover the intention of doing something different.” The story of Alcest has always been one of doing something different. The story of Les chants is another chapter in that story, another antidote to our traumatic repetition that reduces the endless possibilities of our lives to only that which we believe to have come before and that which we believe can only be our present and future one and the same.

So, let’s end with another beginning. The press release for Les chants opens: “As the world we live in grows darker and more bewildering with every passing day, the transformative power of music has never been more vital.” It is something, I think, we all believe in and yet sneer at, pointing as we can to just how dark and just how bewildering everything has become. But it is that bewildering darkness that gives rise to Alcest’s desire for “somewhere different, somewhere better.” For philosopher Miguel Abensour, it is precisely times of “catastrophe” that calls for utopian thinking, utopian art, utopian politics. “In the presence of extreme peril,” Abensour argues, “utopia [seems] more than ever to be the order of the day. In a time of crisis, the need for rescue [seems] infinitely greater, and to respond to that need, it [seems] best to first rescue utopia by forcing it free from myth and transforming it into” something new.

And what is a utopia if not a second chance? If a second chance “is at once a memory and a prophecy, a recollection and a hope,” then we can see its utopian valence. If utopianism is a way to critique the material present in order to imagine a new way of being otherwise that promotes more forms of flourishing, how can we understand it as anything but a striving for a second chance for everyone and everything?  “Do our contemporaries know how to read utopias?” asks Abensour. In a similar vein, Alcest, on Les chants de l’aurore, ask, “Do our contemporaries know how to hear utopias?” If the answer is yes, as it has not been before, then we might just be able to bring about the impossible second chance afforded not just to Admetus and Alcestis but to our collective life itself.

Les chants de l’aurore comes out
June 21 on Nuclear Blast Records.
You can RSVP to a Bandcamp Listening Party
for 1pm EST on Thursday, June 20.
LPs, CDs, and cassettes can be ordered via Nuclear Blast’s webstore.

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