Behind the Cover: ALCEST - Spiritual Instinct

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

Experiencing the artistry of symbolism through an atmospheric metal lens.


Whether it be the rhythm, groove, or melodies that swoon with every strum, the art of music strikes a chord regardless of the origin it stems from. Though helpful, one needs not to know the language or culture behind a composition to truly have it resonate with your being. It is the creativity and personal investment of the musicians behind it all that serves as a driving factor towards making it relatable.


In the case of French blackgaze unit ALCEST, frontman Neige creates a language of his own through improvised sounds that know no bounds or restriction. The pain felt with every scream and the mental bliss reached through melancholic soundscapes is enough of a linguistic character to understand if one chooses to listen. The band's upcoming album Spiritual Instinct achieves what it does musically on the artistic side as well, paired well with French artistic duo Førtifem, who succeed in illustrating a symbol of triumph through reference to the symbolist art movement of the 19th Century.


Heaviest of Art delve into the mind of Neige and Førtifem amidst the exciting pre-release press cycle of Spiritual Instinct for an in-depth look at what lies beneath the pain-ridden sphinx:

By following you across social media, it’s clear that you’re very big on art. Art plays a huge role in your music. It’s a universal language that speaks to all who listen regardless of language and any other barrier. When did art first speak to you and how has it shaped your career as a musician?


Neige: The story behind my love for art starts from when I was a kid. I was always drawing imaginary creatures, monsters, and all kinds of things. I was really into pop culture, horror movies, anime, Japanese manga, imaginary worlds, and just drawings in general. I was always the kid in class that could draw things, so everybody would ask me to draw some kind of monster or something. I’ve always been into 19th Century art, symbolism, and illustrators like Arthur Rackham, John Bauer, and Theodor Kittelson (when he was younger). I actually wanted to go to an art school. Music wasn’t really the first thing I wanted to do. I would always think I would become a comic artist or illustrator, but in the end I chose music.


The thing is, I’ve always been frustrated to stop drawing, so I guess that’s what draws me more into the visual side of Alcest. I consider it to be just as important as the music. It’s two different sides of the same project. An album like Écailles de Lune (2010) is a good example of that. You’ve got the music and the drawing more or less represents exactly what I’ve got in my head when I wrote the songs.


Interesting. Well like you mention, visuals have always been a part of the band’s overall character and your personal inspiration. How important was it for you to ensure that the cover for Spiritual Instinct was apt for the music that was embodied within?


Neige: It’s like a condition. I wouldn’t release an album where the cover doesn’t feel right to me or doesn’t represent the music. This time around, the idea was to have a character with an armor and a very warrior-type look. It’s an album about an inner fight, an inner struggle. I felt that having this beautiful, elegant character in rough armor and strong appearance translated very well into this idea of an inner struggle. That’s what we tried with Førtifem, however, it wasn’t looking as good as hoped it would like.


We like to build a whole story around the album. For Kodama (2016), we had six illustrations, so one illustration per song. We wanted to do the same for Spiritual Instinct. There was a character in this story, like the female character with the armor. This time around, the character was a sphinx. Førtifem did some sketches of the sphinx; they did 2 or 3 different tryouts. The third sketch became what is now on the cover.


Kodama (2016), Cover art by Førtifem

I wasn’t happy with the character at first and then I looked at this sphinx that was on the side and thought, “This is the cover. This is really intriguing and mysterious and this is what the spiritual instinct represents for me.” It’s kind of minimal. The cover is very dark and you just have this character in the center, but I thought it looked very elegant. Most of our covers are quite detailed, so this one is a bit different.


It’s a very introspective album. It’s funny because people ask me, “What inspired you this time? Was it the spring? Was it the night? Was it the Sea? Or was it Japan like it was for Kodama?” This time, it’s actually a very introverted record. That’s why it has no color. It’s a very dark blue with a sphinx in the middle, kind of empty.


Thank you for touching on that. In listening to the first single Protection, it indicates that Spiritual Instinct is a record with a lot of triumph, harnessing one’s inner flames to surpass any darkness. How much of the album’s lyrical themes are a result of your own personal demons and successes as a person and musician?


Neige: You know, it’s the first time I’ve allowed myself to put quite a lot of my inner darkness into the music. I usually try to keep Alcest disconnected from my down to earth struggles, but this time, I was coming back from a very long tour in support of Kodama. It was about 3 years, I think. I was really exhausted and was really losing touch with myself. Spirituality has been a very important part of my life since I was a kid and touring is really not as artistic and spiritual as people would think, even for a band like Alcest. It’s pretty much like going to work. After doing this every day for sometimes years, you can really change as a person. You can’t do what you like to do at home and what makes you who you are, so you kind of lose yourself.


When it was time to write a new song after Kodama, the song turned out to be pretty dark. That hasn’t happened in a long time. That’s what I wanted to express with this record. Spirituality is something that I really missed in my life at this point and it’s something that is instinctive for me. I wanted to use the word “instinct” because spirituality is something that is a part of me and that I need, just as much as I need to eat and breathe. It’s a bit of a violent comeback to spirituality.


On a spiritual journey, you need to embrace your dark side if you want to evolve and grow, as cliche as it sounds. That’s something that I wasn’t so used to doing before. This anxiety and struggle became so big that I had no choice and I have to face it and accept it. That’s pretty much what it is.


You spoke about “Protection” and it’s funny because it made me think about something I didn’t think about before. The sphinx can be some sort of spiritual guardian or some kind of protector. That’s how it could also be connected to the song.


Protection by Førtifem

I think that’s the beauty of art; it’s open to interpretation. What the sphinx may mean to me doesn’t necessarily indicate that it means the same to you.


Neige: Absolutely. For me, it means many things. It is a reference to the symbolist art movement. Painters like Gustave Moreau and other people used the sphinx as a symbol of mystery and metaphysical enigmas. The sphinx is the ultimate symbol of the enigma because he’s always asking questions. That was some kind of homage to this artistic movement. I also really like the fact that the sphinx has a mixture of a spiritual side with a noble face and wings but also contains animal features, like the claws and legs. There’s a very big contrast.


I’ve always felt like some kind of outsider in my life, everywhere I went, even in the music scene. Alcest has always been this kind of weird band. I don’t know why but I can recognize myself in this sphinx, which looks very alien and strange in a way.


You touched on something I’m about to ask next, specifically with the mention of Gustave Moreau and the symbolist movement. Are there any particular works from that era that were influential in your own work?


Neige: Do you know the painting, “The Isle of the Dead”?


Ah, yes.


Neige: It’s one of the most famous symbolist paintings. Actually, the fourth song on the record is an homage to this painting. It’s called L'Île des Morts and it means the isle of the dead. This painting has been a major inspiration for this album. It also represents the fact that on a spiritual path as opposed to religion, you don’t necessarily get answers. In religion, you just have to follow the rules and follow what’s written in the bible and you’ll get all your answers. That’s not the point in spirituality. If there are any answers, you’re going to find them by yourself first. Second, if there are any answers, they will be inside you and not coming from a book or from the mouth of someone else.


This painting represents exactly that for me. You have this boat in front of the island, this tiny white boat. Böcklin made four or five different versions of the painting and on every version, the boat never reaches the island. For me, it means that we don’t know what happens when we die. This whole process is very mysterious and we get the answers only at the moment when we die. It’s very fascinating and I really love this painting.


Isle of the Dead: "Basel" version, 1880 (Arnold Böcklin)
L'Île des Morts by Førtifem

You definitely have me excited to dive into that fourth song now.


Neige: Yeah, it’s very intriguing and mysterious. As you said, it’s very open to interpretation. You can see what you want to see in this painting.

Agreed. Going back to your work with Førtifem, this is the second album now that they’ve worked on, so there’s definitely a level of trust and understanding. What can you say about the artist relationship you’ve built with them over time?


Neige: I could say a lot of things about these guys. The very first thing we did together was a t-shirt. It was looking great, I just love their style. They took a lot of influence from Gustave Doré in terms of traditional engraving. On top of that, they have this pop culture background and like me are very much into anime. They’ve got a very modern touch to it. It’s a good mixture of ancient and new. I really like the sparkle that they have in their drawings.


On a more human level, they are very good friends of mine. We live in Paris and I see them quite often, even outside of work. We are very good friends and they’re one of the easiest people to work with. I think I’m a pain in the ass to work with because I have a very precise idea about what I want. I always come up with a very specific idea and they are always super open to my ideas, so it’s very pleasant to work this way. They are always very open to modifications or small tweaks. We can really collaborate well together and I think they really appreciate that.


From observing the melancholic sphinx on the cover, it's clear you had the opportunity to delve into audio samples or lyrics provided. How did you approach the concepts provided in your own artistic manner?


Førtifem: Actually, at first we had not. Only Neige’s words; a few words depicting his vision, the ideas behind the songs, and the lyrics. That’s the way we’re used to working together. Then, we exchanged inspirational pictures to sharpen our common vision. From here, we were able to come up with a back-story, an atmosphere, feelings, and decors, which enabled us to summon powerful and well-balanced images to go along the songs.


What was the collaborative process between you and Neige like from start to finish?


Førtifem: As we were saying, it all starts with a few words and some images Neige had in mind when writing the lyrics or the music. He shared his mood, his intentions and inspirations, until we gathered enough information to begin to craft the visual universe of Spiritual Instinct. We made a few concept arts, from places inspired by the songs, to stances of the warrior, and the whole lore of the album. From this point, with Neige again being deeply involved into the creative process, we began to associate our sketches with each of the album songs, as we made some years ago with Kodama.


The most interesting part of such an exploration is the fact that we're not heading at first to find the album cover, as usual. It’s while the three of us are wandering, at one point we find the good one, amongst all the ideas, and graphic incarnations. At first, the Sphinx was not supposed to be the cover. But when we saw him, and considered the aura emanating from him, we all knew that was it. Then, we finalized the four other illustrations with the same care. The rest of the process is just focusing on being consistent and careful on each detail to have the most meaningful design in the end. 


Though simple in nature, there's a lot to take from the art, specifically with the facial expressions, color use, and details being so prominent. Were there any external influences or distinguishing qualities, from the making of the art to the art itself, that you'd say had an impact on the end result?


Førtifem: Each of our collaborations with Alcest are the occasion to go out of our comfort zone, as Neige comes and brings his own visual inspirations and references. In Kodama, these were part photographic, part japanese art, especially the work of Yamamoto Takato. For Spiritual instinct, these were totally different. We mixed 19th century English Victorian inspirations (Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley…) to Swiss and Flemish symbolist paintings (Arnold Böcklin, Khnopff), Charles van Lerberghe’s poems, and again Japanese references with Amano Yoshitaka. All of these amazing inspirations surrounded our engraver-loving techniques and personal inspirations, and led to Spiritual Instinct’s artwork. 


There are neat details and beautiful works within the album's physical package. Care to elaborate more on what to expect?


Førtifem: The audience actually had glimpses of it, one of the illustrations being used as the single cover from Protection and another one being used on the merch. To tell more about them, the four illustrations sleeping behind the cover are stills of the Spiritual instinct odyssey. In metaphoric ways, we depict here the remnant of past battles, the observation of baneful horizons, the embrace of fate and the struggle and wanderings to find peace. Harmonious and calm scenes, contrasting from the fire that the music is using, and exhaling masterfully. 


You mentioned being difficult to work with. It’s more the fact that you have the artistic integrity of knowing exactly what you want. It’s worthless to put out an album or cover that you’re not totally content with.


Neige: It’s exactly that. This band is so important to me. This expression is so important to me. I really don’t want to compromise anything, you know? People said “oh these guys signed to Nuclear Blast, so they are going to make commercial metal” and whatever the fuck. If people really knew us, they would know that we are crazy about what we do. We don’t compromise anything. For me, this band is a matter of life and death; it’s so important. Some people, for example Førtifem, like that I come up with strong ideas because maybe they like to have direction and understand that I have a very solid concept in mind.


Going back to your point about this band being life or death to you, you’ve made substantial growth since releasing Souvenirs d'un autre monde (2007) both on a personal and musical level. Where are you now as a musician and as a band after all these years?


Neige: That’s a very good question. I don’t know man, I just want to keep on doing this. In the very early days of my career, I was very afraid. This may sound stupid but when I was writing Souvenirs, I was afraid to die before releasing the album. It was something that I really wanted to say and I was always so scared. I would always tell my friends and my girlfriend, “If I die, make sure to record the songs for me and release them.” It sounds very strange, but that’s the state of mind I was in.


Now that I have six records, I have my preferences and there are things that I would’ve done differently. To be honest, I don’t listen to my own records very much. I know that if it had to stop now, I would be quite happy. Not that I already accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, because that’s not the case, but maybe I feel a little bit more at peace. The band has brought me and my bandmates incredible experiences on tour: all the countries we’ve been to, different people that we’ve met, and different cultures that we discovered. I would’ve never imagined as a kid to be able to go to China for a 12-show tour or to Japan because I had to play shows in Japan. This is something that I could never dream about. It’s not always easy, but I’m so grateful for everything. Very very grateful.


A part of your success is attributed to fans across the world relating to your material. For example, I have a friend that values Souvenirs as a very important record that helped get her through many rough spots. What does it mean to have your music impact the lives of listeners across the world?


Neige: To be very honest, there are moments where I doubt a lot of what I am doing. I don’t have the highest self-esteem. I don’t have the highest confidence in my work, which is why I’m so critical of myself. That’s why every time someone tells me something like this, things like “this album was important to me” or “I lost someone and this record helped me,” it gives me lots of great energy. Every time I start doubting and want to stop everything, I think about these people and these comments. I am so grateful to be lucky enough to have people understand what I’m trying to do.


Absolutely, and like you mentioned earlier, Spiritual Instinct is rooted in the personal. Like the artistry across the symbolist movement, your art is rooted in the personal. This is your most personal record that involves you diving into your own demons. What effect, if any, do you hope this record has on audiences once they’ve had an opportunity to listen?


Neige: This album is almost like a concept album about what spirituality is. People have this image about spirituality being some new age bullshit where everyone is happy and everyone is seeing angels. Spirituality is as I said, being strong enough to accept yourself for who you are, exactly who you are and not trying to lie to yourself. A lot of people to suppress the sides they don’t like about themselves. If you want to grow and be the best person for yourself and the people around you, you first need to accept who you are. That’s a very big point about spirituality.


You then of course have all of the big questions like life after death and if there’s a god. This is not something you would necessarily get to know in your life down here, but at least it keeps you interested in it. These are all very important subjects. As I said, I’ve always felt that I was a bit disconnected. I had a spiritual experience when I was a child, which changed me forever because it made me believe in a lot of things. I believe there’s something waiting for me when I die, in a way. The thing is that you’re always living with one foot on Earth and one foot in this other world. That’s also what this album is about and that is what the Alcest sound is about.

Spiritual Instinct is out on October 25th via Nuclear Blast. Pre-order your copy HERE.

Cover art by Førtifem

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