A dreamy winter Saturday in January provided the perfect atmosphere to go see Alcest play at Korjaamo in Helsinki, organized by Blow Up That Gramophone. It was the first date of this two stop Finland visit on Alcest’s European tour that continued the next day in Tampere with Hexvessel and The Fauns supporting. Tickets for the Helsinki gig were priced at a fair 24€ for such a line-up on a weekend and Korjaamo’s Vaunusali then was also packed. As diverse as the billing and Alcest’s musical history were so was the crowd that had found their way to Helsinki’s Töölö district and this special venue that also hosts the Helsinki tram museum. For this gig unfortunately though, the sides of the hall had been closed off so one could neither access the sitting areas nor see one of the historical trams.
But back to the concert goers – there were the old school black metal guys as well as the black metal hipsters all the way to actual hipsters – many ladies in to my aesthetical eye disputable long-sleeved second hand flower dresses; black, thick rimmed glasses and guys with edgy-stylish haircuts and trendy cardigans. What a mix! But everyone seemed relaxed, enjoying a Saturday night out with drinks and expecting good music. The beverage prices however caused frowns throughout all groups of visitors – 6€ for a 33cl can of cider or beer, up to 9€ for a mixed drink. And while it is not a surprise to see this kind of prices in the center and places like Korjaamo it still always hurts. Luckily, the bar staff was nice and effective and despite there being only two small bars the lines were proceeding fast if there any and the coat check fee had not been raised in the new year as in many other places so it was still 2,50€.
The stage was bathed in purple light, the guitars highlighted in red when The Fauns from the UK entered the stage to start their 45-minutes set. Parts of the audience were certainly excited to see Alison Garner and her band members in their first ever Finland gig – as soon as the first song started they were shouting happily, a group of (maybe not so sober) guys was even jumping up and down wildly in front of the stage. Not knowing anything about the band previously my first impression was that Alison’s voice disappeared into the overall soundscape too much. I felt like I could not get to know her, the band or her voice. Also, the first songs were too happy for my taste – they did not have that depth or melancholy in them which made me wonder if they were a good fit for this billing. But the crowd obviously did not share my initial feelings as they applauded and shouted enthusiastically after the first song. The second song despite its happy superficiality then was also more interesting to me as it had more dynamic and the mix of female and male vocals added a nice layer. Throughout the set there were then also some darker songs that were quite enjoyable and Alison’s voice, while still fragile, gained some drive, urgency and body which created a more accentuated atmosphere as opposed to the other songs which were just floating and lingering. The whole band seemed to gather more drive throughout the show, to warm up. The music was not mine but it was overall enjoyable if a bit boring for me – but they played well and got a good reception by the audience. Maybe it was just the setting of having to stand in an increasingly warm venue – sitting down on the grass in a park with a drink in hand and friends around and The Fauns playing somewhere, their music lingering in the background… I could see myself enjoying them more in such a scenery.
The same goes for the next band, Finnish Hexvessel with their English front man Mat McNerney. I had seen them once before on a very very tired evening so I was curious to watch them a bit more awake but the thought from the previous gig remained: I enjoy seeing them but at a relaxed sit down-gig with a glass of wine and some special smokes they would be a really great band to see. Now they were good but I did not appreciate them as much as I could have with the venue getting more and more crowded and oxygen starting to become a rare good. Being a sucker for atmospheres and visual details, the first song created a slow, cozy atmosphere and the band member’s giant silhouettes being projected on the cloth banners and white brick collars next to the stage was enchanting to watch. The organizers also noticed the thick air and slight lack of space during the gig and opened the curtains separating the stage and bar areas so there was more air, space and visibility from the entrance right away.
The songs got more psychedelic and one of my favorites that had stuck in my mind since the last gig I saw them as support for Sólstafir in 2012 “I am ritual”, was next. This song enchants you with its at times driving yet fragile parts where Mat sings “Holy mother merciful / Holy mother angel” that grab and drag you away into a little weird dance only to lift you into the air, leave you floating while dissolving into an ornate, delicate flowery melody. Compared to The Fauns’ more volatile soundscape Hexvessel created a groovy, clear, warm and very near sound that to me felt just perfect on this winter evening – like a warm musical hug whose arms made you sway from side to side a little. “Woods To Conjure” was one song that evoked such a feeling with its trumpet parts that not only showed off Hexvessel’s instrumental versatility that includes a violin as well but also add an additional thickness to the song, a part that lures your mind and ear on a side journey from the song’s overall path. Light ornaments on the back of the stage enhanced the overall atmosphere. There was no need to flatter the audience as they already were applauding and shouting for the band but Mat could not resist and declared that while you can travel around in Europe, Helsinki is the best place for music right now. Well, who are we to refuse a compliment! The set ended with another groovy song – a cover of Yoko Ono’s “Woman of Salem” that Mat dedicated to his wife.
And finally, at midnight it was time for Alcest! The situation of seeing them in this gig could not have been more different from the last time: At Metalfest 2011 in Switzerland I had made it to the venue at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning after three long festival days. The hall was almost empty and there was still a little morning chill in the otherwise warm spring air. But boy, had it been worth getting up for that gig! Thus, expectations were high to see them now on a Saturday evening in winter in Finland in a full venue.
The stage was an ocean of blue lights, the atmosphere screamed Alcest as did the crowd as soon as Neige and his band members stepped on stage. The band at times seemed to disappear in these lights, remaining invisible for a while, leaving the stage deserted before stepping into the cylinders of light again giving the whole performance a dream-like fabric. The sound was not optimal at the beginning as Neige’s voice did not come through enough but otherwise he seemed less shy as in earlier shows, stepping to the stage border – smiling to the crowd, connecting with the audience instead of being completely absorbed in his own world as I had experience him in previous gigs. Starting off with the song to their latest video “Opale” the gig opened on a light and bright note – but what I had missed in The Fauns, this underlying hint of melancholy was there. Maybe it is also the French language that just carries this better across than English.
The audience was mesmerized – the applause between songs was plentiful and people were dancing, trying to hold on to the air and grab the music, to dissolve into this moment. Neige and his bandmates were clearly enjoying themselves – all of them were head banging and Neige was smiling, thanking the crowd many times, expressing how happy they were to be in Finland again as it had been nice every time and how surprised they were that so many people had come to this gig. So there was hair flying on and off stage, arms in the air, hands clapping throughout the songs and even a lonely lighter could be seen – gig atmosphere at its best!
The set continued with a mix of old and new songs from “Summer’s Glory” to “L’eveil des muses” from the latest album Shelter and all of them were received equally enthusiastic. Alcest did what they do best – play fairy-like dream music with depth, melancholy and drive and the sound started really working after not being 100% optimal for the first song. It is always a rare treat to see an audience engaging with a band without the band encouraging them constantly but just playing their music. Yet, it is no wonder as Alcest are masters of building this dynamic yet fragile atmosphere with their music that just mesmerizes you.
“Voix sereines” is another song from the latest album and one of these Alcest masterpieces that is just brilliant live – it is beautiful, delicate and brightly melancholic. Neige’s voice came out at its best during this song and I think Alcest must be the perfect gig for a romantic metal date out to which the many couples standing arm in arm were proof. Alcest’s music warms your heart and soul from the tips of your toes frozen by the cold Finnish winter to the tips of your hair. The hands in the air then also showed peace signs rather than the metal horns and some people seemed so completely into it, dancing and letting go that I am not convinced it was only the music that got them that high though Alcest certainly can make that happen.
Unfortunately, heart and soul were not the only things that were warmed up and the air quality especially in the front got worse and worse the longer the gig lasted. But the 90 minute set was still to continue and the music was just too beautiful to make the percentage of oxygen to really be of any concern. With “Autre temps” another great song was up next and Neige dedicated it to their new friends of The Fauns and Hexvessel. As beautifully atmospheric this song was and as great a performance, the next one even toped that and in my opinion Neige should not have been concerned that someone might fall asleep despite it being a really soft one: “Sur L’Océan Couleur De Fer” is a masterpiece of musical beauty one can dream during but certainly not sleep. The only thing that disturbed the enchantment slightly was the too high bass volume during the beginning of the song but then that could be taken as an additional way to physically experience this song as it could be felt in the core of your body.
With “Souvenirs d’un autre monde” the regular set ended before they came back out again to play “Délivrance” as an encore. It really had been a great gig where the band seemed to get better and more into it the longer it lasted, feeding off the audience’s energy, creating this special bond between band and crowd that is unique to live gigs. The magic of this show could also be seen in the fact that after the last song not everyone instantly rushed off to the coat check to catch the last bus but people actually stayed to applaud. Seeing Neige and the others at the merch table a few minutes later to hang with fans and sign merch only added to the sympathetic impression I had gotten during the evening and surely was the cherry on the cake for many fans. Merci Alcest pour une merveilleuse nuit magique!
Nina Ratavaara, Photos: Eija Mäkivuoti