Emerging from the Camden Underworld on Sunday 22nd March 2009 (Amen), t–shirt steaming and jeans splattered with blood (whose I’m not sure) a friend in a similar state asked me if I thought Gojira were the best metal band ever. This was not a question I could answer lightly, and over several years, numerous drafts, two crashed computers, and the release of another Gojira album, I have struggled to come to an answer. I found even trying to set criteria in order to approximate an answer (e.g. does heavier equal better? How do you measure heaviness?) heads into dubious territory.
I think I’m now at the point where I can try to answer this question. Having seen Gojira evolve as they’ve grown from obscurity, with what seemed like a dearth of publicity for several years, to supporting Metallica and Slayer, and sign to Roadrunner, I feel that now is the right time to say something about how great they are. That, and just the enjoyment I gain from writing about a band I consider to be comparable with Metallica at their prime. Arguably this is not much more than an open fan letter, but I’m going to let my case argue for itself.
Throughout 2006 and 2007 Trivium were receiving a lot of publicity, having recently released their second album, Ascendancy, which was met which popular, and in some circles, critical acclaim. Every time I read about them, they were being treated like they were the next Metallica, and that they were going to revolutionise heavy metal. I like some of Trivium’s music, but there was no way they were the next Metallica. As little as anyone else seemed to realise it, that honour belonged to none other than a strange French band called Gojira.
I was absolutely convinced of this then. I subjected everyone who I knew had a passing interest in music to Gojira. One guitar–playing friend returned my copy of From Mars To Sirius saying that he didn’t particularly like it, and following a long argument, I made him keep it and listen to it again. He didn’t like it any more after this second phase, which was an opinion I had grown no more tolerant towards, but having lent it out for a while, I wanted it back so I could listen to it once more. Trying to force a love and appreciation of Gojira is something I have subjected many friends to. However, with their most recent album L’Enfant Sauvage, I am no longer so inclined to do so. This may be partially due to me realising not everyone likes progressive heavy metal, and getting over it. But it’s not just me that’s changed. It’s you too, Gojira. I liked L’Enfant Sauvage…but the next Metallica? Not so sure any more.
Looking through the back catalogue of both bands, a number of similarities come to mind: they combine muscular song writing ability with primal aggression, their riffs stand alone and yet still fit into the bigger vision of the song, and each album shows development whilst still recognisably the same band. They have bigger ideas. They are the cooler older kid who as you get to know them have remained just as cool. I didn’t grow to like them: I recognised their brilliance straight away. One listen of From Mars To Sirius converted me; it was like what I had just heard had come out of an unexplored corner of my mind. There is something special about the albums which were bought as a bit of a gamble, whether that be with money or time (given the abundance of it so readily available for free), that have an instant effect. For me this was one of them. Their third album, From Mars To Sirius, much like Metallica’s first five, epitomises a kind of metal essence for me. It is everything that I think death metal should be; dense, but never at the sacrifice of the song writing; progressive, but never hard to appreciate; melodic, but heavy; it rages, but never fades into repetition; possessing revolutionary implications without descending into violence. The da Vince style artwork is striking without being cartoonish, and as ferocious as it is, the music is never ugly. In some bands ugliness is fine, is good, is brilliant. Gojira’s sound is better described as natural. Given the abundance of animal imagery and the lyrical focus on nature, particularly on whales, perhaps the greatest bastion of wilderness, this is fitting. Touches such as wind chimes, bird song, wooden percussion and throat chanting allude to more primal elements of human existence (on their 2009 European tour drummer Mario Duplantier had a seven foot metal shaft attached vertically to one side of his kit, using it as a kind of gong throughout the set). I vaguely recall one critic describing them as sounding like a natural disaster taking place in your ear; I would go one hyperbolic step beyond that to say listening to Gojira is like following in the wake of King Kong, is like listening to a group of whales jamming at the bottom of the ocean, is like watching mountains collapse into the whirlpool that the ocean has become.
Their first album, Terra Incognita, is more identifiable as a death metal album than as a Gojira album. It is still clearly something different: the trademark guitar ‘woops’ are even there, as is the theme of nature, but it is clearly early day material, and thus is operating against the benchmark, is this better than average? While the answer is clearly yes, it achieves this through moments, such as twelfth track Love, rather than flat–out brilliance. There are more typical death metal touches; more blast beats, the vocals are higher–pitched (and less distinctive), the song structures are not as sprawling, the production values are much lower, and it overall feels more linear. The drums also work within the context of the guitar lines, rather than sounding as independent as they do from From Mars To Sirius onwards. I would play this to sell Gojira to people with an old–school, lo–fi taste; not necessarily your who–can–be–the–most–evil crowd, but people who like a bit of mess in their music, for whom each song having its own character is of secondary importance. If From Mars To Sirius evokes a universal scope, and The Way Of All Flesh suggests the oceans of the world, then Terra Incognita is being in a deep dark forest, alone.
Follow–up to Terra Incognita, The Link, bears many similar characteristics, the riffs set around the same pitches, low on the fretboard with heavy detuning, and the drums a little choppier. There are interesting touches, such as the reverb on the stop–start riff in the title track, as though reverberating up from the bottom of a canyon, the wind–chimes in Connected, and the sucker punch of fourth track Remembrance. It bounces around, with vocal swells adding an ambient layer to a blood–pulse riff, with a uniquely technical breakdown at the end. Gojira ended the heckling at their October 2008 gig supporting In Flames at the London Astoria (R.I.P) with that riff. One knuckle dragger next to me went from shouting ‘blaarggh yereeah, you guise shuck, In Flames, yearhg!’ to ‘…faakin ‘ell…’ (translation: ‘fucking /fuking/ adj taboo 2 used by some without adding much to an existing sense’, ‘hell /hel/ noun 3 used in exclamations or for emphasis’) in the space of one minute. The Link still feels linear like Terra Incognita, moving back and forth between riffs, but hints at the greater things to come, with the foot stomping riffs starting to become plentiful, and Duplantier beginning to sing ‘gruff blow–out–your chest melodies’ (thank you Metalsucks’ Shanbomb for that description).
Alongside stop–and–stare complexity, playing to the same standard live as in the studio, they also have simple riffs, but play and accent them in such a way that makes them absolute in their weight and impact. Besides using all manner of well–established techniques to make different sounds, whether palm muting, detuning or tapping, they have their own trademark in the ‘woop’ pinch harmonics (From Mars To Sirius’ opening track Ocean Planet being an excellent example). The quality of the song writing is strong enough to make the absence of solos inconspicuous; I didn’t pick up on this until three months after hearing From Mars To Sirius. Likewise, the vocals move between growls, roars, shouting and a little bit of blackened screaming, depending on what the riff is doing. The depth is always there, and for my money Joe Duplantier is one of the most powerful vocalists out there, maybe only surpassed by Black Breath’s Neil McAdams. They take elements from different kinds of metal, rock and hardcore and use them to make their own style, much like how Metallica worked self–referential touches in with Biblical imagery. The lyrics of Backbone have parallels to those of the average tough guy hardcore song, but without the inconsistent oppositional lyrics and confused interplay between first and second person. Instead, there is a focus on the challenges presented by the narrator’s own weaknesses, such as ‘I just looked myself/Straight in the eyes and saw/That I had to move/To higher places’ (From Mars).
And although Gojira tend to write from a first–person perspective, this tends to expand into a metaphor for humanity, despite, or perhaps because of, their advocacy for nature. Taking this into account, it is interesting that this narrator is often travelling, usually on an unrealised path to enlightenment or as an escape from oppressive conditions. The closing lyrics to The Way Of All Flesh, the album’s title and closing track, are ‘you are leaving this world […] leave behind the loved ones and all you know/do not be afraid and let yourself go.’ Watching their behind the scenes footage and their videos, they reflect this philosophy in their ceaseless gesturing to things ethereal. There is a sense of a new age, spiritual questing, allowing the songs to become their own worlds. From Mars To Sirius exemplifies this most so in that it is a concept album, whereas the other four albums are bonded by common themes, rather than narrative arc of any sort. In condensed form, the story of From Mars To Sirius is that of a despairing human narrator who looks to nature to find empowerment, through which s/he will, in turn, save nature. After a journey both physical and mental, through the world and through space, s/he decides to return to help save earth, acknowledging the immense challenge facing them, but with hope in his/her heart.
On record, this translates as a modern classic. A whale call echoes, and Ocean Planet crashes in with a thundering drum intro and wooping pinch harmonics. It’s fairly slow, and this is the case for many parts of the album, but the density and grooves never feel less then elemental. There are double bass breakdowns throughout, but they never feel laboured, as do the infrequent blackened bits. Odd time signatures about, as do legato harmonics and echoing whale calls. The reverb–heavy drums sound as though they are in the vast wilderness of which they sing, from ‘A Tree Trunk/Larger Than A Mountain’ (In The Wilderness), to ‘mountainous waves/Are breaking on my despair’ (Ocean Planet). These primal qualities give substance to the stylistics of the whale amongst planets on the artwork of From Mars To Sirius, to song titles like Esoteric Surgery and Planned Obsolescence and themes like environmentalism and spirituality.
I like an eye–opening stance in music, and consequently I have always felt an affinity for Gojira’s environmentalism, which extends to an outspoken support for Sea Shepard. When it comes to apportioning blame, most metal bands prefer to criticise others, or associate personal shortcomings with the corrupting influence of another party, but Gojira look at collective faults, whether it be the Great Pacific garbage patch (Toxic Garbage Island), over–consumption of natural resources (Wolf Down The Earth), or a sense of societal disconnection (The Art Of Dying). They refer to the self as being both in opposition to and as being part of the universe, nature, environmental destruction and spirituality. Forests, mountains, lakes, glaciers, temples, valleys and waves abound in the lyrics, alongside features like the photo of a prairie in The Link sleeve notes, or the bird whistles at the start and end of Remembrance. In a way they present a kind of straight–edge for me; not in the teetotal sense of the word, but in a clear and strong sense of spiritual positivity. This could be said for anyone’s favourite music, or even my own favourite music extended past Gojira, but the difference lies in that they seem to be conscious of this. Although all music you choose to listen to should make you feel better in one way or another, and help achieve a clearer perception of the world, and Gojira seem to understand this.
The Way Of All Flesh was a well thought–out follow up to From Mars To Sirius, and it felt as though they had developed, with chief song writer Joseph Duplantier stating that this album is his vision of death and the soul. The opening riff of The Way Of All Flesh’s first track Oroborus even sounds like a development of From Mars To Sirius’s closing track Global Warming. The highlight of the album is at the album’s midpoint, with The Art Of Dying starting with a percussive and chanted intro, breaking into asymmetrical, almost unbelievable, double–bass heaviness. It breaks down into one of the best riffs Metallica never wrote, pulsing into the stop–start double bass of Esoteric Surgery, with its opening line ‘ You have the power to heal yourself’. This trio ends with the stomping trudge of Vacuity, a dirge to which the narrator casts off his earthly binds, finishing with the line ‘you finally find yourself’. Overall, maybe a little bit could have been cut here and there from the album, such as the non–descript breakdown in Wolf Down The Earth or the five and a half minutes of silence inserted at the end of closing track The Way Of All Flesh (I have never been a fan of massive silences at the end of albums), but the flaws were few and far between.
L’Enfant Sauvage was good…but it didn’t feel as though it reached the exciting possibilities the preceding albums made feel conceivable. It feels as though the progression has lost vision, with fewer progressive elements having survived, replaced by a simplified sound. The lyrics on the four prior albums focused on the themes of struggling, finding strength and growing, both as an individual and as a race. Looking for the next stage of development, Gojira have taken a step back seemingly having focused on certain elements of their sound and narrowing their scope in the process. They have started to sound technical now, which they never did before, and also more repetitive, and consequently I found myself asking, where’s the jaw drop? When I first heard The Way Of All Flesh, it was an epiphany. Before listening to L’Enfant, I was excited, as well as nervous; I had deliberately waited until I knew I would have the time to listen to it in its entirety, uninterrupted, which I very rarely spare the time for any more. Usually it’s get in, chuck on the new CD(s) and work to the new noise. Opener Explosia is a slammer, switching between two heavy, off–balance, stomping riffs for the first two and a half minutes, then making use of big string bends, like the soundtrack to a dusty old Western. Unfortunately, it is also the highlight of the album. The first half of third track The Axe feels quite technical, but after a sweet breakdown, the second half of the song feels more complete. Lyrically, the imagery fails to amount to anything, and consequently feels quite vague throughout (‘Bloodletting all of my soul/Sucked in, paralyzed’). Sixth track Planned Obsolescence is, again, quite a technical song. When they mix the pace, with some downward drives, it expresses Mother Nature’s fury at its finest. Seventh track Mouth of Kala comes out of the blocks with a sprinter of a riff, and gets deep with reverberating, monk–style chanting during the chorus. Lyrically, it’s a little tighter, about the temporal nature of physical existence. Just as the minor arpeggios run out of steam, the double–timed riff comes back in. The breakdown is like a cave collapse, with wonky, heavy guitars, echoing. Ninth track Pain Is A Master feels just a bit too processed at times, but the verse riff is crushing, with a coiling piece of palm–muted guitar work at 3.18. The lasting impression is that this album is more technical but also more formulaic than previous material, with common features being tremolo guitar lines, shouted rather than growled vocals, breaks into half time and ‘moments of discovery’ following double bass breakdowns.
It’s good, but it’s not special, and it leaves me underwhelmed. Whatever the second coming is going to sound like, it’s not on L’Enfant Sauvage. It hurts me to say that. The song structures are linear and the riffs repeat a bit more, which just doesn’t create the same sense of immersion as their other albums do. Maybe it will come to grow on me; I certainly hope it does, but I harbour the feeling that when I want to listen to something expansive and heavy, I will probably be putting on The Way Of All Flesh or From Mars To Sirius for the time being. Interestingly, going back to listen to The Link whilst writing this article, I found myself drawing comparisons between it and L’Enfant Sauvage, due to their shared narrower scope and more linear song structures.
So, the best metal band since Metallica peaked (whichever album you think that occurred on)? I’m not going to list all of the bands I’ve thought of as contenders; the chin–stroking would turn to beard–stroking. Although they may be in a slight limbo at the moment, I still listen to Gojira on repeat, even their weakest album, and will be buying their next album the day it is released. As with Metallica, when I listen to their music, I feel that ‘I’m a part of this and this is a part of me’.
I see at last
My backbone straighten.
 Zero Tolerance Issue 25