Alcest, Sunn O))), and Ulver Ditch the Leather and Chains

By at least one measure, Deafheaven's Sunbather was, statistically speaking, the best album of 2013. The sophomore album from the divisive maybe-metal, maybe-something-else Bay Area band ranked at the top of review-aggregate website Metacritic's year-end list, based on an average of scores from major magazines, newspapers, and other websites, beating out Daft Punk, Kanye West, and Vampire Weekend.

The cracks in that system are pretty obvious—West's Yeezus had almost three times as many reviews as Sunbather, from higher-profile outlets, and more high scores, and, in the end, it actually topped more best-of-2013 lists. Still, Sunbather's hazy, gauzy mix of shoegaze guitars, metal vocals, and emo intensity hit a pop-culture nerve last year. There was chatter about whether it's really metal or not, and whether that matters. Purists largely dismissed Sunbather, but some broader-minded metal fans embraced it. More important, the album won over a bunch of listeners who likely didn't buy any other metal albums last year. It also helped smooth the way in 2014 for Alcest.

On its new album, Shelter, released on Prophecy Productions in January, the French band has shed all of the metal trappings that appeared on Souvenirs d'un autre monde (2007), Écailles de Lune (2010), and Les Voyages de l'Âme (2012) for shimmering, major-key shoegaze and dream-pop bliss. Shelter's bright, chiming guitars have more in common with mid-'90s British bands like Curve, Slowdive, and Chapterhouse than the French black-metal scene that frontman and songwriter Neige came out of in the early '00s. (There's even a guest vocal appearance by Slowdive's Neil Halstead on the song "Away.")

Alcest has been headed in this direction for years—the influence of the heavier end of shoegaze, like My Bloody Valentine, Loop, and Swervedriver, was apparent as far back as Souvenirs d'un autre monde. But the result is still startling; even on Alcest's most recent album, Les Voyages de l'Âme, the heavy guitar distortion and occasionally harsh vocals gave Neige's increasingly gentle melodies purchase.

On Shelter, there's no dynamic range. Neige's transcendental ambitions lose their power when they're disconnected from the band's darker, heavier side. Alcest's previous albums may have become formulaic, but at least it was an interesting formula. Shelter is pretty, but its celestial tone is unearned. There's nothing to go back to.

An altogether more satisfying example of metal bands doing something entirely different is Terrestrials (Southern Lord), the new three-song collaboration between U.S. droneheads Sunn O))) and Norwegian apostates Ulver. Sunn O)))'s explorations of the outer reaches of heavy rock music over the last 15 years have made the group (Stephen O'Malley, Greg Anderson, and an expanding cohort of occasional and rotating partners) near-legendary in certain circles. Ulver, which began as a straightforward black-metal band in the early '90s, has since charted off into electronic music, contemporary classical, and, on 2012's Childhood's End, idiosyncratic covers of '60s psychedelic pop. Over the last decade, the two bands have largely left metal behind in favor of music that falls, often unpredictably, in the gaps between electronic composition, chamber music, art rock, and jazz. (Think of it as the Big Ears axis.)

Terrestrials starts off as essentially the next step from Sunn O)))'s 2009 masterwork, Monuments and Dimensions. (It was actually recorded during the same time period, during a one-night jam session in 2008.) The languid pace and minimal arrangement on the 11-minute opening track, "Let There Be Light," resemble, more than anything, Miles Davis' "space music" of the late 1960s—slow, subtle, disciplined, and hypnotic. A sheet of glacial guitar chords is ornamented by horns and strings, finally building to a crescendo that is equal parts crushingly heavy and transcendentally uplifting. That heavy, luminous tone circles and repeats through "Western Horn," the album's nine-minute centerpiece, and finally comes to a head on the 14-minute closer, "Eternal Return," when a noodly synth pattern emerges halfway through, introducing Ulver main man Kristoffer Rygg's unmistakable voice. It's only then, in the final five minutes of the 35-minute album, that you realize just how much forward, linear progress Terrestrials has made. It's not an essential entry in the discography of either Sunn O))) or Ulver, but there's plenty to go back to on this one.