Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Concert Review - Anathema, Alcest, Mamiffer - 9/13/13 at Empire, Springfield, VA

I've wanted to see Alcest for a long time - ever since I missed them last time they came around. Being someone that likes fast, heavy, harsh music, it might seem surprising that I like Alcest a lot - but a little contradiction makes everything more interesting. Alcest does have fast and heavy remnants of black metal buried in the atmospheric flow of their music, but I love them more for the soft, dreamy parts. Anathema - recommended to me by a friend this summer shortly before the tour was announced - seemed to fall into the same camp, although less heavy and complex. I wound up enjoying their latest few albums (the atmospheric rock ones) a lot, and got excited about seeing Anathema as well.

Alcest bathed in rays of light
Alcest bathed in rays of light. (photo by Steve Wass)

The experimental rock project Mamiffer, meanwhile, sounded like it might be an interesting experience, but didn't really hook me right away. Granted, I listened to one of their albums while working on other things, which is not necessarily the best way to enjoy atmospheric or experimental music. I thought they might be more intense live, but sadly arrived at the venue late and only caught the last five minutes of their set. I had to go down to the floor because the people near the bar were too noisy, and this seemed like something that I had to get into the zone to really enjoy. The sound was very sparse, with little in the way of melody or beat, more like a continuous wave of sound that varied in intensity and tone. Faith Coloccia, the mastermind of the project, was singing some repetitive syllables in a lamenting tone (she does use actual words occasionally - I thought I even caught some Finnish words on the album I listened to) while Aaron Turner strummed the guitar, and something electronic may have been going an as well. They were both somewhat obscured by smoke, lit up by fixed red lights. They built up to a consuming crescendo of distorted sound, and then walked off to applause from the decent sized crowd. I felt disappointed about getting there so late - as I had predicted, it was a mesmerizing and meditative experience live, and I would have wanted to experience more of it.

Mamiffer: red light and fog
Mamiffer: red light and fog. (photo by Steve Wass)

The atmospheric magic of Alcest wiped away my disappointment. I expected them to be incredible, and was still blown away. At first we were standing  by the steps leading down to the floor, then managed to snag a spot on the railing at the back of the floor, from where we could see the whole stage and floor, and from there I was transported into Neige's fairy world. The wistful, beautiful music, with just a touch of heaviness giving it intensity, and occasional harsh vocals but usually dreamy cleans floating over the guitars like a glimpse of another world, was just as enchanting as I expected. The lighting enhanced the mood - most amazing were the spotlights that looked like rays of sun scattered by leaves, or a gentle shower of rain, but turned out to be forming the shape of a rose, I realized, when a break in the crowd let the light fall on the floor.

Although it didn't detract from my enjoyment much, the sound seemed a little muddy at first, the vocals in particular barely distinguishable, but that seemed to clear up once we moved closer to the center. "Sur L'Océan Couleur de Feu" sounded crystal clear as it should, while with other songs like "Percées de Lumiere," a fuzzier atmospheric sound was expected. More annoying were the people talking - during quiet moments, people were even talking on the floor, which regrettably pulled me out of my trance a bit. Neige was not as shoegazey as I expected - he spoke to the crowd and even looked at - or at least looked out over - the crowd, including one moment where he bobbed his head inviting some clapping along. They played heavily from their most recent album, Voyages de l'Ame, and also graced us with two new songs. If I remember correctly, the first new song, "Opale," was gentle and melodic, with a repetitive motif, while the second one, "Delivrance," was a bit more layered, showing some of their black metal roots with a sort of heavy, sort of distorted passage near the ending. At the end they walked off with a backing track of soothing guitars and vocals still going, which seemed a little odd.

I had not realized they were co-headlining with Anathema, so the long set was a pleasant surprise. I enjoy most shows, but usually at some point I start looking forward to going home at the end - but this time, I wished that Alcest would never stop playing, that I could be immersed in their sound forever. The rest of the crowd was also quite appreciative, and the crowd had grown very large by the latter part of their set.

I think I was not quite recovered when British atmospheric rock act Anathema appeared on stage. Their demeanor was a sharp deviation from the minimalistic, mysterious aura that the previous two acts had presented with their soft lighting and quiet stage presence. They - particularly the vocalist, Vincent Cavanagh - were much more energetic and talkative, which broke the atmospheric vibe for me. Their sound was also much crisper, with more of a straightforward rock sound, and the drums seemed jarringly sharp and loud at the beginning. At the same time, their songs start out very, very minimal, with maybe just some clean vocals and a little guitar or piano, so after the intense experience of Alcest, it was a little hard to get into. Still, they sounded good, and I got more into them as the set went on.

I got distracted near the end when I saw Neige near Alcest's merch table, and had go say hi and shake hands. I was too shy to say much else and he was pretty quiet himself, so I left it at that. Overall I was a little disappointed with Anathema, but I think that probably had as much to do with my expectations and mental state after Alcest as with their performance. It was funny - early in the set, Vincent called on the crowd to "go wild" for the upbeat part of a song, and...a few people bobbed their heads. I guess that's what passes for going wild at an atmospheric rock show XD But nearer the end of the set, most of the crowd did start to jump for one song. At the very end, actually, they played something rather intense, heavy and distorted, and that was probably my favorite song of the set.

I wish I had been able to get into Anathema more - what I had thought would be an amazing night was a little less so. But only in quantity, for in regard to quality, Alcest was unbelievable and unforgettable. I was still relishing the experience the next morning, and should my memories start to fade, I only need listen to a song or two to fall back into that trance and relive them again.

Next show: possibly Death Ray Vision this week; going to try to catch Vektor at the DC Heavy Metal 4th Anniversary Party and My Enemy Complete at their album release party next week.


  1. i just saw them in nyc also, alcest stole the show, i have a few of the videos from their set being uploaded to youtube as we speak.. i agreed 100% with everything you said actually plus i missed them the last time they came to town and now i am regretting only seeing them once so far, but it made my week seeing them at least this time.. anathema also was too much of a contrast for me so i think i didn't even catch most of their songs plus i drank too much by that point, but yah alcest was def the highlight and who i wanted to see most

    1. Ooh, I will have to check out the videos. I'm glad to hear I was not alone in not being able to dig Anathema after Alcest. Seemed like they should be a good match - both are great music for relaxing - and yet somehow it didn't work out. But it was worth it just to see Alcest.

  2. My experience was a bit less engulfing, but I see that Alcest fans were totes into it