Blackgaze pioneers Alcest released their 6th full-length record, Spiritual Instinct, last fall, and the tour for the album – with support acts Kælan Mikla and Birds in Row – began in full force in early 2020. The sole Finnish date of the trek took place at Tavastia, Helsinki, on February 18th, 2020, and Musicalypse was there to see the sold-out show.
Last time I saw Alcest in 2017, they were supporting Anathema, and as much as I appreciate both bands, that night France beat Britain 1-0, as Neige (vocals and guitars) and co. played a wonderful set, while the Liverpudlians were not in their best form. It had also been 5 years since the last headlining set I saw from Alcest, and Spiritual Instinct wasn’t too far from my top 3 albums from 2019, so I had plenty of reasons to be happy to see them again. However, before getting to enjoy the main course, there were two support bands in store.
The Icelandic synth-punk trio Kælan Mikla had the honor of opening the show, but it got off to a shaky start with some technical difficulties. Once the band finally got going, the music turned out to be an interesting combination of moody synths, electronic beats, live bass, and vocals that ranged from whispers all the way to chilling screeches. While the material was more on the artsy than accessible side, and one song even included some out-of-tune-sounding keyboard notes, the rhythms were very danceable, and you could actually see a few people doing so; perhaps some of the audience were fans already. Some of the post-punk-style beats in the songs reminded me of The Cure, which was no surprise, as a few years ago Robert Smith invited the trio (as well as Alcest) to play Meltdown Festival, which was curated by him.
Unfortunately the promising set came to a sudden standstill when technology failed the band once more in the middle of the set, as the bass stopped working. Vocalist Laufey Soffia asked the audience to “give us a few minutes and get to know the person next to you,” which resulted in an awkward moment of waiting, as Finnish people generally aren’t overly sociable. While I didn’t expect stand-up comedy or a “We Will Rock You” sing-along, perhaps at least introducing the members could’ve made the wait feel a little less long. Kælan Mikla did complete their set successfully, but since their music was so heavy on atmosphere, it was hard to regain momentum after the disruption.
Up next was Birds in Row, Alcest’s countrymen from France, but the trio’s post-hardcore sound couldn’t have been much further from the headliner’s dreamy atmospheres. I’m not really a fan of punk, let alone hardcore, so to me the majority of the 40-minute set was one big blur, although the band would occasionally grant a relief by slowing down for a quiet section. To the band’s credit, they had a massive amount of energy on stage, and the bassist (the band members are anonymous) in particular was thrashing all around. The guitarist/vocalist also talked about topics such as self-acceptance and unity between people while introducing the songs, although these messages didn’t totally come through in the aggressive music. While Birds in Row certainly made the night more musically diverse, they were just not my cup of tea.
At last it was time for Alcest, and the band started expectedly with the opener of Spiritual Instinct, “Les jardins de minuit.” What was unexpected was that the song was played in a lower key than on the album, which caught me off guard at first. Nevertheless, the band’s playing was on point right from the first note and by now the crowd at the packed Tavastia didn’t need any more warming up. Just like on the album, the second tune was “Protection,” which – as one of Alcest’s heaviest songs – offered a great opportunity for headbanging.
After a few heavier numbers, things calmed down with the evergreen “Autre temps,” which was then followed by a deep cut in the form of “Écailles de lune, Pt. 2.” This epic (well, half of it) with its dynamic mood shifts ended up being my favorite song of the whole night, and judging by the crowd’s reaction, I wasn’t alone. Alcest then served more gems from the new album with “Sapphire” and the hypnotic “Le miroir” before “Kodama” – which was dedicated to the support bands – brought the main set to a strong finish. The crowd at Tavastia wasn’t ready to let the blackgazers go yet though, so the foursome returned for a rousing rendition of “Là où naissent les couleurs nouvelles” that had people pumping their fists in the air and finally sent everyone back home with “Délivrance,” which has proved itself to be a good closer over the years, even though it’s not a personal favorite of mine.
Although Neige is undoubtedly the heart and soul of Alcest, the live experience wouldn’t have been complete without the other musicians completing the jigsaw puzzle: Winterhalter showed a lot of energy, headbanging while pounding the drums, live bassist Indria – who has cut his hair since I last saw the band live – took good care of the low end, and besides his main instrument, live guitarist Zero did a great job on backing vocals, trading verses with Neige on “Protection” and filling in on clean lead vocals when they overlapped with Neige’s screaming. I also have to tip my hat to the person in charge of the sound department, as the mixing was crystal clear and the band managed to sound exactly like on their studio recordings. In the case of many other bands, this could be a minus and come across as boring and sterile, but I like the way Alcest’s music manages to transport you into another world on stage too, even without the help of big visual effects.
While Alcest’s set had a fairly balanced selection of songs, I was once again left longing for a track from my favorite album, Souvenirs d’un autre monde (2007). The omission of “L’île des morts” from the new album was a bummer as well, since it was one of my top songs from last year – perhaps they’re waiting to premiere it with guest vocalist Kathrine Shepard of Sylvaine? The tour package was also a mixed bag to me, but I applaud Alcest for not picking predictable tour companions, and the fact that the audience was so receptive to both Kælan Mikla and Birds in Row is a testament to how open-minded Alcest fans are. Anyway, despite all my nitpicking, getting to see Alcest live was once again a pleasant experience. After hearing Neige compliment and thank the audience with F-bombs (which I can’t remember hearing from him before) and say that the band’s crowds get bigger every time they play in Finland, I don’t think we’ll have to wait another 6 years for Alcest’s next headlining show in our country.
1. Les jardins de minuit
3. Oiseaux de proie
4. Autre temps
5. Écailles de lune, Pt. 2
7. Le miroir
9. Là où naissent les couleurs nouvelles
Photos: Marco Manzi