The classic example of the musical elitist is the “I only liked the first demo” fan. The fan who liked the band before they were big, before anyone else had heard of them and now subsequently has done a volt- face. Generally, this is the attitude of the lazy and the trend-follower. It’s much easier to pretend to be into something when your scene dictates you must when said band only has one demo and you only have to spend 4 tracks pretending you get it. By the time the full-length arrives, you can jettison the band along with everyone else who was there at the beginning, man.
There are times, however, when preferring a band’s earliest output is a legitimate position to take. When Alcest first arrived, they were presenting something awesome. Yes, the shoegaze influence was obvious but they still managed to come across as something completely new and unique. They felt special, and like something destined of a very specific moment in time. Their first UK show back in 2010, supporting the Vision Bleak at the same venue they’re now headlining, saw them deliver an incredible set. It seemed that this would almost certainly be a one off, and that added a sense of bittersweet undercurrent to the evening. I remember walking out of the venue after the gig, resigned to the fact I’d never see Alcest live again, but also feeling like the night was all the better for that.
Fast forward two years, and you know the rest of the story. Tonight, the queue for the Purple Turtle snakes down the road, round the corner and as far as the eye can see thereafter. It’s an eclectic mix, but I have to say that despite whatever the naysayers would have you think, not solely comprised of teenage girls.
Due to the Purple Turtle deciding it’s a good idea to ID everyone without exception, by the time we make it into the venue, Soror Dolorosa are already in full flight. Expressing Cure vibes with vigour, frontman Andy Julia clearly didn’t get the message that the 80s were over and their frantic, tortuous garage-goth is delivered with the ghost of Iain Curtis never far from the stage. This might be obvious worship, but it comes with the polish of a far more experienced band, it’s a true shame that we’re not subject to a full headline set tonight.
Les Discrets are up next and are without question the band that I’ve come here to see. Septembre et Ses Dernières Pensées was a stunningly good album and it’s been a long wait since 2010 to actually see these songs performed live. Happily, they don’t disappoint. The pathos of the Les Discrets experience is perfectly translated live, with the full grand scale of their melancholy taking on a new quality within this context. Les Discrets obviously resonate with the audience and their songs transcend even the heights achieved by their studio output. There’s a real charged atmosphere. Fursy Teyssier is visibly moved by the reaction and it seems that he has greatly underestimated the support for his project. It’s fair to say that, for most of the audience, this could go on all night.
Bearing in mind that almost all of the legendary Amesoeurs are on stage at this point, it was perhaps to be expected that the spectre of that gone-too-soon band would get a look in. That said, it’s still an amazing moment when the open strains of ‘Gas in Veins’ kicks in, and while it’s a smaller section of the audience that responds viscerally to this, it’s still by far the most intense reaction seen all night. Finishing with a sweeping ‘Song for Mountains’, it’s to absolute rapture and emphatic shouts of “MORE” that Les Discrets leave the stage in London, hopefully not for the last time.
Which brings us to Alcest, a band that I’m immensely conflicted about. To clarify, Alcest are great. Their music is universal, has crossed over to a number of audiences that would never normally listen to music associated with the scenes that they move in and has in return, I’m sure, acted as a “gateway” for many into more obtuse territories. They’ve done this because they have proper song-writing nous and the ability to convey emotion spectacularly. They fall firmly into the camp of “Sunday afternoon music” but are all the stronger for this. They’re also a band that only a couple of years ago I had a massive affinity for. That said, I just don’t feel the same love that I did for them back then, and while I’ve listened to and appreciated Les Voyages Des L’ame, it hasn’t compelled me to revisit it.
I’m keeping a firmly opened mind, especially given the symbolism of tonight’s full circle from that support slot back in 2010. I guess it’s fair to say that my expectations are for a great show by a great band, but for the elusive je ne sais quoi from earlier days to probably remain in the past.
Opening with ‘Autre Temps’, the band are tight as hell. Vocals sit a bit too low in the mix for full clarity, but bass tones are deep, guitars crunch and drums, as you would expect from the hand of Winterhalter are as usual beyond superlatives. The setlist tonight covers ground from all previous releases and is an evidence of a band who are masters of their craft. It’s not just the quality of the delivery of each song, but an understanding of how to formulate a coherent whole that makes the Alcest live experience so convincing. This can safely be described as a band at the top of the game, and fair play to them, it’s through hard work and perseverance that Alcest have arrived at this position.
That said, I’m still not convinced. There are definite highlights, in particular ‘Percées de lumière‘, which I would defend vigorously as one of the best songs to come out of this particular scene. It closes the main set with a sense of urgency perhaps lacking elsewhere this evening and when the band returns to the stage for ‘Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde‘ it’s a spectacular moment.
On reflection, and taken in summation though it just seems that some of that old magic around Alcest has been lost. It’s not something tangible or something that can be quantified but it just feels like we’re not watching the same band that we did before. This is a very, very good band playing spectacularly well and getting a very well-deserved reception for it. Somehow, though, it just doesn’t quite hit the gut the way that it did before, and that is a real pity.