Words by Joe Gilbertson
A lot has changed in the past four years for Joe and Mario Duplantier, the brothers at the heart of France’s greatest export, progressive death metal band Gojira. Having re-located to New York to build the studio in which they would complete the follow up to their 2012 masterpiece L’Enfant Sauvage, the pair lost their mother to cancer in 2015.
The result of this turbulent four years, Magma, is in some ways a fairly contradictory record: more progressive and far-fetched in nature than it’s predecessors, yet simpler and leaner in design. It captures both a gloomy, desperate air of depression and also a huge sense of hopefulness. L’Enfant Sauvage was an album defined by its riffs – a constant assault of riffs so brilliant and immediately timeless it was as if Gojira were not writing them so much as transcribing them from some esoteric, inhuman force. Although containing several of the same base elements, on Magma, Gojira work far more with textures and tones than aggressiveness to create not just a new set of tracks but a whole new world for their imaginations to inhabit.
The scene is set brilliantly with opener ‘The Shooting Star’, a drizzly and atmospheric piece built around simple, chant-like vocal melodies that evoke Ghost’s campy sense of ceremony, but thankfully perfected to sound at home in the ominous dirge of the music. The effect is like that of a cult gathering for a ritual, something which becomes an essential component of the record, most notably in the title track. Here, the vocals mix with some daringly melodic yet unsettling guitar lines that maintain a building air of menace over nearly seven minutes. There are also some more delicate lead lines that sound a lot like something from a latter day Mastodon track, which brings the human side of Gojira out to the forefront. For a band who sound like much of their music was written by an ancient alien civilisation, Gojira have a lot of heart: something which is very apparent on Magma.
Tracks like ‘Silvera’ and ‘The Cell’ feature plenty of strong, aggressive riffs, but they feel more refined and cleaner than on their early work, drawing more from the mechanical futuristic groove of Fear Factory than the brutal technicality of death metal. ‘Pray’ is a highlight with its simple and crushingly heavy opening riff which builds to a huge intensity before breaking into a more melodic yet equally dark and dystopian sounding verse. It’s moments like these where Gojira can truly revel in the fact that they have a sound quite like no other band on Earth. However, although the riffs underpin the vocal-work and general atmosphere of the album terrifically, it’s hard not to miss the frantic, blood-boiling urgency of their past albums. This is perhaps most significant on lead single ‘Stranded’, which is catchy but feels lacking in most other areas – the passion is clearly there, but it feels too restrained by the poppy nature of the song.
Following the intense build-up of tension through ‘Magma’ and ‘Pray’, Magma reaches it’s dark, pessimistic climax in ‘Only Pain’ before moving to a more positive albeit subdued note in ‘Low Lands’ and the lovely acoustic closer ‘Liberation’. It’s on these last tracks that the lyrics become most noticeably coloured by the death of the Duplantiers’ mother, and although musically they feel a little weak for their lack of any impressive heaviness or technicality, they nonetheless form a powerful tribute and close the album on a beautifully bleak yet uplifting tone.
Although not as immediate or explosive as their previous efforts, Magma is impressively well written and full of bold, powerful decisions. “When you change yourself you change the world”, state the band themselves in ‘Silvera’ – and if Gojira have as much impact as they deserve, this could well be a turning point in the world of modern metal as an art form.