2014, not unlike 1992, appears to be the year of shoegaze. Just as "90s emo" was last year, it is the buzzword of choice for up and coming acts, regardless of how much or how little they may have in common with the forefathers of the genre. Deafheaven doesn't really sound much like Chapterhouse or Lush, no matter what their press releases and countless reviewers may lead listeners to believe, and it appears the title may be a misnomer for France's Alcest as well.

Longtime fans of Neige, Winterhalter (best black metal pseudonym ever?) and company have probably sensed a musical shift coming in the Alcest camp, but even repeated listens to 2012's stellar "Les Voyages de I'Ame" couldn't have possibly prepared fans for the Cocteau Twins tinted dream pop of "Shelter". The album, recorded with longtime Sigur Ros producer Birgir Jon Birgisson in the band's Icelandic studio, is a far cry from the black metal shaded post rock of their previous releases. Much to the malign of "Sunbather" listeners looking for the next big thing, there isn't a single blast beat or bit of distorted tremolo picking to be heard on the French two piece's latest. Instead, "Shelter" is a 45 minute barrage of dream pop goodness that wears its influences on its sleeve, unabashedly allowing its outside contributors (Birgisson and Slowdive's Neil Halstead, among others) to lead them into new territory.

"Shelter" begins with the one-two punch of "Wings" and "Opale". "Wings" is a prototypical introduction, teasing the latter's gigantic chorus while quickly leading into track 2. "Opale" is perhaps the poppiest song to ever be associated with a "black metal" act, as the track has more in common with an early Coldplay song than anything even Burzum has released. The song has Apple and/or Toyota commercial written all over it and is, perhaps, the single catchiest song of 2014 thus far.

"La Nuit Marche Avec Moi" (The Night Walks with Me, for English speaking folk) is a slightly darker piece of pop lushesness, possibly embodying the album's sun glaring artwork more than any other track on "Shelter". Birgisson truly makes his influence felt here; the song's chorus features a swelling bit of guitar work that immediately brings Sigur Ros' untitled record to mind.

"Voix Sereines" concludes the record's A side in absolutely breathtaking fashion. Drummer Winterhalter has clearly embraced his band's transition in sound and compliments Neige's painstakingly frail picking with a quiet couplet of cymbal flourishes and a faint snare roll. "Voix Sereines" is the defining moment of "Shelter", if not Alcest's career. The guitar harmony layered onto the last minute and a half of the song serves as a musical coming out party for a group that, in all honesty, may have been better suited changing their name before this release. Simply put, this record has next to nothing in common with debut release "Souvenirs d'un auto monde".

"L'Eveil des Muses" takes things in a much darker direction, offering up the first hints of a minor chord progression within "Shelter". The song serves as a transition of sorts, as the latter half of "Shelter" takes a turn for the melancholic. The Sigur Ros comparisons are once again unavoidable here. One can almost envision Birgisson punching in his usual presets for both vocals and lead guitars here, the difference being that he allows the track to breathe rather than focusing on overlaying the instrumentation.

"Shelter's" title track reintroduces the rung out, chorus soaked guitars of "Opale", this time allowing Winterhalter to carrying the song with a more percussive floor and rack tom part that adds a surprising amount of low end to the mix. Nierge sounds particularly inspired here, layering an extra vocal harmony to compliment a sweeping piano part that flutters throughout the chorus.

"Away" and "Delivrance", respectively, close out the standard edition of "Shelter" The former is the album's lone English language track and features Neil Halstead, frontman of the recently reunited Slowdive. Although the song's guitar melody is alarmingly reminiscent of the Marshall Tucker Band's "Can't You See" (seriously, it's fucking eerie), Halstead sounds absolutely incredible over an orchestral arrangement while lamenting about being "far away". Unremarkable in writing, of course, but make no mistake: Halstead still has impeccable singing chops that perfectly suit this kind of music. It's a minor miracle that 2014 marks the return of Slowdive, and one would think his participation here may have helped lead to that decision.

"Delivrance" serves as a summary endnote for the rest of the music, eventually revisiting and pitchshifting segments of "Opale's" earworming melodies while serving up a far darker bombast of noise that, based on Youtube videos of performances floating around, translates beautifully to a live setting. The female harmony vocal is also a welcome attribute, leading to a audial picturesque closing of Alcest's first foray into dream pop.

Those polarized or perhaps even perturbed by Alcest's shift in musical landscapes probably weren't paying attention to the many hints they've dropped in both interviews and concert debuts of new tracks over the past few years. Black metal purists probably hated the band to begin with, and Pitchfork enthusiasts hoping for a record to pair with Deafheaven's "Sunbather" will surely be disappointed with "Shelter". This is 2014's first truly surprising record, not necessarily in style but in execution. Alcest have succeeded in transcending the genre they've mostly been associated with over the years, all the while bucking the mostly Americanized shoegaze worship we've seen with (admittedly excellent) acts such as Nothing and Whirr. "Shelter" is to be taken at face value for what it is: a band stepping out of its comfort zone with both feet in the proverbial water.