When Alcest released Kodama in 2016, it stood apart from their previous catalog in exploring the "blackgaze" metal subgenre they'd created. It was darker, more aggressive, and had more pointed edges. Earlier outings, from the groundbreaking Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde in 2007 through their breakthrough Ecailles de Lune and Les Voyages de L’ame, offered more tempered yet emotionally resonant aspects of black metal's blastbeat and tremolo-picking textural palette. The release of the infamous Shelter in 2014 saw the Bagnols-sur-Cèze duo indulge in something akin to dream pop. Although Kodama still offered the greater lyrical introspection of its predecessors, it was a much more physical approach.
Spiritual Instinct, the band's debut for Nuclear Blast, builds on Kodama even as it reaches further outside the emotions expressed on it in order to transcend them. It explores dichotomies -- the divine and the primal, the raw and the refined, the hideous and the beautiful -- in a quest to reveal complexities at the heart of what humanity actually means. Opener "Les Jardins de Minuit" borrows a radically Gothic bassline from Joy Division before a single-string melody line, followed by doubled vocals, pave the way for blastbeats and powerful, strummed open chords. It's a swirl of gray and smoke that gallops along. Layered vocal harmonies and screaming add dimension to its urgency and angry bewilderment. "Protection" is slower, more menacing; its riff recalls the Ocean's Pelagial era; its clean vocals hover inside the music's physicality and urgency as it shifts tempo. While "Sapphire" dials the intensity down a bit to return to a fractured form of blackgaze, its monastically inspired four-part harmonies add an offsetting brightness. The pulsing, brief electronic intro to "L'île Des Morts" introduces a riff that suggests the influence of Tool, a sheaf of shoegaze adds dramatic tension. For over nine minutes, this jam is alternately hypnotic and jarring, with intermittent screaming and blastbeats delivering sonic contradictions like a crown of tarnished jewels. The song is about the profound obstacles one encounters on the internal quest when pushing through to spiritual unknowns. It's among the most remarkable compositions in the band's history. The closing title track rumbles with thudding tom-toms and shard-like guitar in a tribal intro. When the wailing chord vamp takes over, it's contrasted with a gentle vocal that knows it cannot hold off the darker sonic forces pushing in from the margins; it ultimately embraces them, building a climax that reaches beyond the sum of its parts. Alcest don't pursue darkness or dwell in it; they understand it as a part of the unbearable light that holds everything in its embrace. The end of the journey on Spiritual Instinct, while deeply satisfying, signals yet another beginning.