Souvenirs d’un autre monde opens with “Printemps émeraude”. Cymbols are struck with the intensity of wind chimes on your neighbor’s porch, post rock guitars soar with small scale intimacy. Blast beats enter the mix and hit with the same force as a light mist hanging in the breeze. Once we’re deep in the emerald glow, it all drops out. There’s a quick silence only to be dissolved by reverbed acoustic picking. Seconds later, we’re joined by the sounds of children playing. Laughs and screams gently build into a wall of unrestrained joy.
Are you crying yet?
The same tremolo picked post rock guitars bloom once again. This time, accompanied with Niege’s warm vocal presence hovering just above, flowing with the trickling delicateness of a stream just after the thaw. On Souvenirs, Niege never takes on a typical black metal vocal performance. He never shrieks, he never growls, he doesn’t even chant. Instead, he opts for a soothingly ethereal lullaby-like croon. Most of Souvenirs d’un autre monde feels like Niege doing all he can to not only subvert black metal genre tropes, but abandon everything about the genre entirely. If the music wasn’t so sincere, it would come off as one big troll.
Souvenirs doesn’t fit in the context of 2007. The metal world wasn’t exactly hungry for a soft, atmospheric cleanse. Prior to and following its release, the year had been dominated by the muscular Satanic slam of Watain’s Sworn to the Dark. Not only that, but the album’s release date was sandwiched between Deathspell Omega’s arty Fas – Ite, Meladicti, in Ignem Aeternum and Wolves In the Throne Room’s legendary Two Hunters. Despite his much harsher competition, Niege wasn’t exactly toiling in obscurity. Souvenirs was certainly appreciated in the circles that were less concerned with being “trve” or “kvlt”, but it mostly entered the conversation because of how strange it was. Souvenirs managed to make it on virtually every metal-centric year end list with caveat that it wasn’t really black metal.
It’s understandable that 2007 didn’t know what to do with it. Hell, the album still feels alien. 2007 was a wildly different time for the metal. Death metal was death metal. Grindcore was grindcore. Black metal was black metal. A simpler time, indeed. There were exceptions, but subgenres were far easier to navigate back then. Unlike now where the Blocland staff’s collective fingers wouldn’t be enough to count them all out. That’s not to say 2007 metal writers didn’t have a point, though.
Alcest has gone onto to influence countless atmospheric black metal bands, but none of them sound like Souvenirs. The album has always sat in strange spot in the metal world. There’s black metal elements like tremolo picking and blast beats filling out the mix, but the aesthetic doesn’t fit in with pure black metal. Absolutely nothing about this album can be considered “harsh”, “brutal”, or any other metal writing signifier you can think of. Guitars are distorted and rough in the way gently gliding your hand along a tree trunk is rough. Blast beats propel the songs the same way the wind propels seeds through the air.
Prior to Alcest, Niege was a drummer for hire. His creative output and contributions were found in various French black metal projects including Peste Noir, Mortifera, and his own band Amesoeurs. All of which fall under what we readily accept as black metal. Though, Amesoeurs had a unique post punk and goth rock influence because Niege is incapable of doing black metal by the book. Eventually, he struck out on his own and Alcest came into being with the 2005 EP Le secret. With Le secret came what we now know as “blackgaze”.
The EP had the distinction of not sounding like anything in black metal that had come before it. Blackgaze’s black metal foundation can be traced back to the Norwegian atmospheric black metal scene, most notably Ulver. What really sets blackgaze apart is how much it takes from shoegaze. Le secret sounds like Burzum by way of Slowdive. Alcest started as Niege’s way of taking black metal’s dungeon persona and melding it with the musical aesthetic and melodic qualities of shoegaze and post rock’s sense of catharsis. It’s these different and more palatable flavors that cause the subgenre to often be labeled as “metal for people that don’t actually like metal”. Deafheaven owe their entire existence to Le secret.
To best understand Alcest and Souvenirs, check out how Niege described the album to Pitchfork in a 2007 interview:
“In my childhood I had some “visions” of an unknown place, of another dimension, and since my 2005 Mini-CD Le Secret, Alcest is the musical testimony of these experiences. Recently some books about esoterism have brought me some answers about that subject. At the moment I think these visions come from a place that could be a kind of “intermediate stage.” The soul would rest there between two earthly lives and for some time would be liberated of the burden of incarnation. Maybe I kept some memories of this state of consciousness. I couldn’t tell precisely if these experiences were sorts of memories from this “other world” or if they were an ability, which I had as a child, to catch sight of the doors of a parallel dimension, of a hidden reality. I hope these questions will be answered one day.
What I’m certain of is that things I perceive in these visions don’t look like anything I have seen in my current life or even in my dreams. It’s an indescribably beautiful place where everything– trees, glades, and brooks– produces a pearly light and where a faraway and celestial music floats in the air like a perfume. In such a place the spirit wanders without its mortal coil and deprived of the five senses pertaining to the body. It perceives what surrounds it in a completely different way such as I couldn’t describe with words. There, one no longer feels moral and physical suffering, diseases, anguish of death but only a feeling of peace and indescribable ecstasy. The place is inhabited by beings of light who are infinitely benevolent, protective and who communicate by talking directly to the soul, in a “language” beyond words. Of course, that was just a clumsy and incomplete description. To understand me fully, it’s better to listen to my music.”
It would be much easier to write that description off as pretentious nonsense if it didn’t perfectly encapsulate the album. In fact, I would have a hard time believing Niege doesn’t have special insight into distant dimensions. Nothing about this album feels of this world. The lyrics are all in French, but the way Niege uses his voice it’s barely recognizable. It’s far more likely that these words are derived from either a language long forgotten or one us humans aren’t equipped to grasp. For a long time, I had no idea what Niege was going on about. More so, I didn’t want to know. How could the content possibly live up to what it was in my head? You can probably guess that I was wrong. Here’s the translated first verse of the title track:
“Where I come from, time doesn’t exist
Seconds turn into hours
The years are short moments, immediately gone
And our deceiving words are replaced
By music and colors,
Floating like fragrances in the amber air”
Taking the extremity that is black metal and making something beautiful out of it wasn’t anything new. The trend was set into motion with Ulver’s Bergtatt in 1995. A year prior to Souvenirs, Wolves In the Throne Room pulled it off with Diadem of 12 Stars. The difference is, those albums and other prettier black metal efforts are beautiful in the way a snow tipped pine tree or a grazing family of deer is beautiful. It’s observational. The beauty of Souvenirs is interactive. It strokes your hair, cradles your head, and holds you in an all-encompassing embrace.
For the followup, Ecailles de lune, Niege plunged further into black metal and would continue to do so until 2012’s full-on shoegazer, Shelter. Alcest would also continue to evolve into an actual band with a shifting lineup. There’s no shortage of quality material in the Alcest catalogue, but none of it touches Souvenirs. The album is an achievement of towering transportive beauty. Yet, Niege was able to tap into and trigger very human emotional responses not explored by metal before or since, really.
“Souvenirs d’un autre monde” translates to “memories from another world”. This other world that Niege describes isn’t as unattainable as it may seem. These tracks come from a place we’ve all been. Souvenirs d’un autre monde is love. Not a romantic love, mind you, but a warm and familiar love. It’s your dog crawling into bed and curling up by your side. It’s the sinking feeling of sifting through the photographs of your long passed grandparents. It’s your friend calling just to check in. It’s the melancholy of watching home movies of you and your siblings running around your childhood backyard. Somehow Niege was able to take a genre built on ugliness and bend it into a collection of snapshots depicting these kinds of small yet overwhelmingly human feelings. That’s pretty damn supernatural if you ask me.