Disclaimer: Let me anticipate possible criticisms by saying that I have absolutely no problem with metal bands making albums that are less heavy. The problem I have is when that move is fueled by unjustified pretension which leads to the music sounding stale and aimless. This is definitely the case here (spoilers!), so before you sit down to write the obvious “you’re just a metal elitist” comment, please think again. That is, I most definitely am a metal elitist but it’s not relevant here. Onwards.
Gojira. Let the name roll off your tongue. What does it mean to you, to us as a community? Maybe you picture a kaiju and smile in self contentment at your knowledge of cinema trivia. Perhaps though, like most of us, the name is synonymous with countless, important streams within metal today. Modern metal, groove metal, pick sweeping, impossibly thick bass, environmentalism and so many more themes currently in operation within the metal community owe their widespread popularity (if not their very genesis) to Gojira. To some of us, not the majority but not the minority either, it is a name embattled: L’Enfant Sauvage was, for us, not exactly the heir we looked for to the amazing The Way Of All Flesh. Indeed, some would say that it’s that album and not its predecessor which first planted doubts in their heart. While this reviewer disagrees, it is not a position without merit, since the album saw them move to the sleek, more accurate sound that introduced many fans to the band.
So, a name embattled. Wherever you place the first cracks in the wall, it is without a doubt that the eyes of the metal community are all focused on Magma, the band’s next release. Will the walls hold? Will Gojira return, cloaked in the flames of a semi-needed phoenix to reclaim a throne that they had never completely abdicated? This reviewer stands before you today and is forced to cry out “No!”. Like the proverbial messenger, dodging unjustified bullets, we are forced to bring you bad news; Magma is a mess. It is an album which is un-grounded, completely unclear as to where it’s going, why it’s going there, and how to get there. Gojira did some of what we had hoped they would do: they’ve reconfigured and re-calibrated what makes them move and act. But, they’ve done very little of how we had hoped they would do it.
Instead of approaching a new store of primal, immediate and guttural power, a power which had animated them earlier in their career, they seem to have instead built castles and minarets of grandiose, artistic ideas and musical aspirations. They then proceed to tumble down every single step of those edifices, only once or twice (near the beginning of their stumble) catching their balance and saying something of coherence. Let’s start there, as good a place as any. After the wholly unremarkable and inoffensive “The Shooting Star”, whose weirdly effect-tinged vocals should already raise a red flag, our spirits might be lifted. “Silvera”, one of the leading singles for this album, is great. It is cohesive, straight-forward and well written. The chorus is moving and satisfying, calmly gathering the energies along the track for their eventual release.
Anyone craving some complexity will find it right after it with “The Cell”. It’s a classic Gojira track, leaning on an initial, heavy riff steeped in weird time signatures and a basic wrongness that sinks hooks into your heart and ear. But now, right when our hopes were high, is where things get hairy. You’ve already heard “Stranded” and some of you like it and some don’t and that’s fine. It’s not a bad track, but it makes very little sense within the context of the album. Following on the heels of “The Cell”, is it a definite downgrade in energies and excitement, a simple and somewhat bland track which capitulates very little on the energies of the tracks before it.
What’s more, having crossed the nu-metal trappings of “Stranded”, the listener lands right in the energetic abyss which is “Yellow Stone”. This is an instrumental interlude which would have been a better fit on a stoner album. It completely robs any momentum the album had so far. It doesn’t “speak” with any other theme or moment before it (or after it) and thus makes absolutely no sense. It doesn’t even fade into the track after it; it just fades out with no statement, no addition made to the album, via interesting composition or a grander scheme.
This duo, from a band known for its tightness and album cohesion, is worrying in and of itself. But, my friends, with Magma you can always fall further. Half of the album has gone by and we’ve had only two meaningful, interesting tracks, but an avid fan might still have hope. “Magma” is here to dash that hope to the rocks and send the crows to eat its liver. The main guitar lead is the very epitome of try-hard, “art” rock, screeching and supposedly discordant without accomplishing anything with it. The vocals are once again drenched in redundant effects, which leave what is otherwise the best part of this album stale and without punching force. Thus, the chorus which was supposed to be an energetic counterpoint to the verse is rendered impotent. The whole track just gets lost in the pretense, the deep desire to be “cool”, “artistic” or “mature”. In that sense, “Magma” is a perfect title track since it captures the essence of the album: an effort to make things work instead of them actually working.
By the time the second half of “Magma” (album and track alike), emerges, too much time has been wasted on nothing for it to make an impact. Is it even worth your time? They have some good moments, alongside some actual riffs, but they have no place to grow, no ground on which to gather momentum after the failed attempts at expression that came before them. So, we would really like to say that this part of the album salvages some remnants of the energy we expected from a Gojira release, but we can’t.
While these last three tracks are again inoffensive and nothing more, they pale in comparison with the closing track, “Liberation”. This is an acoustic track, an extremely odd choice for closing off an album. Everything that has passed isn’t a counterpoint and there’s nothing to come; the track hangs in void. That would be excusable if the track itself was any good but it really isn’t. Once again, the attempt to appear “soulful” has left it barren; barely heard, hand-played drums whittle into nothing (with faint hints of “tribalism”, for the orientalists among you). The acoustic guitar sounds like random warm-up exercises one would play as a jam is getting off the ground at a local, hipster joint.
To sum it up, who knows why the drive has been lost. Looking at the band’s recent interviews and the artistic choices made with the album’s release, one develops the suspicion that Gojira have accepted the strange and powerful allure of artistic ego. Talks of saving the planet, mysterious videos and booklets, black and white studio videos or music clips that paint modern humanity as drones are not a substitute for making engaging music. In fact, focusing on your composition, honesty and hunger is a much better way of getting your point across. Don’t believe me? Try to get excited and pumped when listening to this album. Now listen to The Way of All Flesh or Terra Incognita. Do you feel that lightning running down your hackles? Do you hear the hunger in the band’s music, the actual rage which doesn’t need to be articulated in words? That’s where great metal lies and pompous speeches and vapid, artistic drives are its death. Sadly, it seems as if we must add Gojira to the tally of bands who got caught up in their own manifestos and forgot to make music first.