Review ‘em All: Gojira, Magma

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Not entirely sold on the Moonface artwork.

Although I am no longer convinced that Gojira are the second coming of metal (Metallica = the first), I still went out of my way to buy a copy of their sixth album Magma the day it came out. I did have criticisms of Gojira’s last album L’Enfant Sauvage, mainly that it felt linear and closer in scope to 2001’s Terra Incognita than a progression from 2008’s The Art of Dying. With time I’ve tempered that opinion in realising that L’Enfant is still a decent record – in particular, Mouth of Kala sounds like a cave in – but not the revelation that From Mars to Sirius and The Art of Dying were. So, perhaps to an unreasonable extent, I’m stacking a lot of chips on Magma.

Opening track The Shooting Star enters with one of Gojira’s mid–paced, churning riffs, but the first real point of note is that the opening vocals on Magma are clean. Starting the album like this is a symbolic declaration of Gojira continuing to evolve, away from death metal – although there are still elements of this multi–tentacled beast – into whatever they are now. This progression, which I suspect time will prove to be ongoing, is matched by the opening line

on the first light of the day you march on
departure has arrived
don’t look back.

I was unsure about the clean vocals at first, but with repeat listens they’ve grown on me. Silvera starts with a left–turning, bouncing riff that I found myself thinking of as ‘semi–thrash’, and Joseph Duplantier mixes his shouting with clean singing. It also contains not one but two squiggly tapping riffs, and fourth track Stranded incorporates another calling card of Gojira, unexpected noises (whale calls, wooden percussion, wind chimes) this time through the flanged, jangly chorus, which had me thinking, ‘Well, this certainly isn’t metal’, but then Joe Duplantier goes and roars his guts up everywhere and then sings clean as a whistle (no whistling though) in the interlude.

My pitch for this review, as you have probably figured out, is that Gojira are changing and have reached a tipping point. So it’s nice, amongst all the heavy thinking about vocal approaches, song structures and plectrum thickness, to hear what could only be Jean–Michel Labadie’s crunching bass tone on the obligatory instrumental (track number #5 this time round), Yellow Stone. It moves at a stately place, and, of all bands, actually reminded me of Mogwai. It was then even better to hear the next track, my notes for which were: ‘Magma. I have just heard the guitar make new noises.’ Following reverberation riffs and chanted vocals, at the song’s midpoint there is a Ride The Lightning riff that Metallica never got around to writing.

With time, I came to feel that The Art of Dying and L’Enfant Sauvage could have both done with trimming (From Mars to Sirius is fucking perfect). Magma feels concise in comparison, with only ten tracks to the twelve or thirteen on each of their preceding albums and the average song length standing at four minutes and 40 seconds. The longest song, Magma, is relatively short at 6.42. This album is more mid–paced, in addition to the song structures being a little more conventional. This is definitely Gojira’s most accessible album to date, a large part of which is due to the clean vocals. That said, there were also several points on this album that started a one man moshpit in front of my stereo.

This album prompted me to go back to Terra Incognita and listen through their discography to really understand how Gojira have progressed. Listening to each of these six albums, I hear the same band…but different. I apologise for making the comparison once again, but like Metallica, they’ve changed on each album. After several weeks of listening, my impression of Magma is that songs stand out (my favourite being Magma) rather than it being a stand–out album, but in saying this almost feel spoilt for choice; Magma is not Gojira’s best, but it’s still an album I’d be proud to have created and it’s still causing one man pits in front of the stereo.

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Yob Song by Song: Asleep in Samsara

asleep in samsara

The circle of riff/life

The definition of ‘Samsara’, although seemingly as subject to variation as any other philosophical term, is roughly the concept of all life and existence moving through cyclical change. One definition I found (via the internet, mind you) was ‘cycle of aimless drifting, wandering or mundane existence’. Although I don’t think it’s aimless, nor mundane, and is a bit too heavy to think of as ‘drifting’, Asleep in Samsara does fittingly conjure the sense of meandering along through its 17 minutes.

Throat chanting, panning left to right and back again repeatedly, is joined by a fluttery, slow–funk wah guitar. A bell rings lightly. The wah riff drops the wah, stamps on the fuzz box, is joined by the rhythm section, and plays that same riff for over 11 minutes, with a couple of variations. This heavy repetition and sluggish pace leaves little to say about Asleep In Samsara in terms of technical aspects or specific characteristics. Although this main section bridges into a slow galloping riff after 13 minutes, accompanied by an unsourced quote that posits ‘Religion is a poison’, the appeal of this song lies in how it bubbles away, the sense of tectonics shifting, and of a power lurking just beneath this surface, helped no end by the tactile guitar tone.

One effect of listening to a lot of heavy metal, which, let’s not forgot, most people think is weird music, is that sometimes the notion of a song actually lasting for 17 minutes is taken for granted. Like how the preceding track Pain of I is too ugly a song to introduce someone to Yob with, Asleep in Samsara is too long a song to win over a potential fan, and admittedly patience is required to enjoy how long Yob take sometimes. As mentioned, this track is one to be swept along with and sunk into, rather than be looked to for a sense of pace or push and pull, and in this way it defies being pored over. Many of Yob’s long(er) songs derive from a search for meaning, but I think with this one it was a case of we’ve got a sweet riff or two, it’s the last track, there’s no hurry, let’s have fun.

And thus concludes Elaborations of Carbon: something simple in its base form taken beyond into something complex and deep. Compared to later albums, it’s a little more bluesy in the Master of Reality sense of the word, with none of the big, sad songs that Yob would place on later albums. It’s a bit raw, and overly longer at points, but nonetheless a distinctive and idiosyncratic album. Next up: Aeons, the first track of album #2, Catharsis.

 

 

Yob Song by Song: Pain of I

Despite its cabbalistic subject matter, and being 17 minutes long, Revolution is one of Yob’s groovier, lighter songs, bluesy rather than doomed. So I imagine Yob felt the need to pour the muck back in with the crackling distortion and recurring minor thirds and perfect seconds of Pain of I. The vocals enter not with a word but with a roar, and the song centres around that dissonant intro riff. It is ugly, played loose and rough to the point of sludginess, and is placed here to contrast with the preceding Revolution. This is really emphasised by the soloed slow ‘n’ low distorted bass that enters after a stretch of silence, following the root notes of the chromatic riff.

Although the difference between doom and sludge is blurred, with a lot depending on that abstract concept of ‘feel’, there is a consistent difference in their desired effects; a little wiser, a little sombre? Doom. Seeking alcohol and feeling filthy? Sludge. The grace present in so much of Yob’s playing is absent from Pain of I ; this is the ugly, rough track of the album, and is fittingly titled. Ironically, given that ‘I’ is used in the context of ‘I and I’, referring to the philosophical concept of the connection between all living things, I would not use it to convince someone to listen to more of Yob.

 

Yob Song By Song: Revolution

We have been brought up to experience ourselves as isolated centres of awareness and action placed in a world that is not us, that is foreign, alien, other, which we confront. Whereas in fact, the way an ecologist describes human behaviour, is as an action; what you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place we call here and now. You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing. This is not what you might call a fatalistic or deterministic idea. You see, you might be a fatalist if you think that you are a sort of puppet which life pushes around. You are separate from life but life dominates. That’s fatalism.

Heavy music inspires people to headbang, throw the horns, start a pit, cut the sleeves off denim jackets and sew Motörhead patches onto denim jackets, but there’s not a lot of metal which truly inspires meditation. Doom metal – which let’s not forget, is named after the concept of the cessation of existence – is the genre most explicitly connected to existential pain. Ever since Ozzy first wailed about that figure in black most heavy bands have had quite a glum take on things (notable exception: Torche), but the best doom bands have tended to be the ones who have channelled this sense of suffering through a philosophical desire to understand why it is taking place. Scheidt’s interest in Eastern mysticism has steered Yob’s music and lyrics towards a more positive, new age take on this trope, and whilst the three songs covered thus far have suggested this, Revolution underlines it.

After what is essentially a five minute introduction, with two layers of guitar shifting like sand dunes, it drops into a solitary track of wah guitar before a single snapping snare drum kicks it back in and Scheidt declares ‘Oh yeahhhhh/Alllrighttt’, and off we go; we’re on a journey here.

The lyrics, even with some furrowed brow listening, are largely indiscernible. What I could make out (‘…brand new way…all the demons in my mind…truth…I feel the ground beneath me…you cannot see what is going down…time we have a revolution, yeah…revolution, yeah yeah’) wasn’t particularly poetic, nor did it provide much narrative sense. The only word that initially comes through clearly is ‘Revolution’, which is a broad, and in many ways, abstract phrase. If anything, it seems a little as though it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator; ‘revolution’ sounds cool, right? Turn up, tune down, play slow, smoke this, and the revolution will begin. The atmosphere of the song goes some way in alleviating this – after all, there are great songs with less than great lyrics (…Megadeth) – but when placed within the context of the next section they are invested with a deeper meaning.

After an echoing, wah–inflected solo, the track descends through a swung, descending riff into feedback, then the solitary track of wah guitar comes back in. A synth that sounds as though it may have been pilfered from The War of The Worlds enters, then a clip of philosopher Alan Watts quoting the above passage from his book Tao of Philosophy, positing on the connection between all living beings and the world, underpinning Yob’s leanings towards a new age, spiritual perspective. Among shimmering guitars it concludes a whole minute later with a slower, triumphant variation of the main riff in 2/4 crashing; enlightenment arriving via amplitude. That this interlude doesn’t arrive until 12 minutes is what makes this song work. It has been built up to, the listener journeying along with the song before wisdom is found.

I found myself wondering why so much doom metal and its variant of stoner metal is made up of long songs. There is an obvious correlation between songs being slow and taking longer to finish – speed is equal to distance divided by time – but I think there is more to it than that. Songs of these lengths (the average Yob song is 9 minutes and 55 seconds long) by their nature ask that they are listened to in the moment, that past and future are discounted for what is within that present moment; they become their own world. Yob are not the only doom band to play long songs slowly (Sleep’s Dopesmoker is known for being an hour long), but at least on an implicit level they seem to understand the subtext of playing in this style, which some doom bands do not. I am no Zen master, but from my understanding, this centring of the present moment can be a form of meditation. These riffs draw you in, looking inwards before outwards. The titular revolution is one of the mind.

Yob Song By Song: Clear Seeing

'8vb' means play an octave lower than notated.

‘8vb’ means play an octave lower than notated. And don’t forget the distortion and chorus.

Oh gawd, that bass riff. Detuned to drop A#, heavy on the chorus with a bit of distortion, meshing with big, laid back 4/4 drums that hold off the snare until the third beat, to my ears this is the first sign of Yob’s real potential. And what is it that they are clearly seeing? The lyrics describe some kind of enlightenment, starting with

In control of the mind
Thoughts are getting clear now

with a few ‘Oh yeahs!’ thrown into to compliment the bluesy groove. The vocals stick to the Ozzy and Geddy–esque style throughout, and this number is more conventionally structured than the other tracks on this album (roughly intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, interlude, guitar solo, re–intro, verse, chorus, outro) and is the second shortest track at 7.25 (we will come onto the shortest track, and why it is so, Pain of I, in a bit). The drums are solid, the snare in particular sounding massive, and post–wah guitar solo there is lovely use of space which doubles up to re–introduce that riff. And when it ends, it ends tightly with no feedback or fallout.

Information on Yob’s various rhythm sections over the years is hard to come by beyond names, but as Yob very much seems to be Scheidt’s fiefdom this doesn’t come as a surprise. Isamu Sato is listed as the bass guitarist in the sleeve notes, but as one Lowell Isles is credited for ‘past bass riffage’ I’m not sure who wrote this line. However, Sato, who presumably played the recorded line, is clearly no slouch. If you are listening to Yob for the first time, going through their songs chronologically, I imagine this would be the moment when you realise what Yob can really do.