Gojira’s Fortitude was sure to be one of the most anticipated and contentious records of 2021 (and perhaps the only truly sizable genre release of the year so far?). The Frenchmen’s seventh full-length record arrives after a five-year gap – the longest of their career – and follows the divisive change in style and potential direction showcased on 2016’s semi-mainstream breakthrough Magma. Sure enough, the metal blogosphere was alight with hot takes upon its release, some declaring it the best record of their stellar career, others their worst, many more declaring it a largely successful, yet uneven record that sits somewhere in the middle ranks of their discography. So, a month on since its release – the hype having finally dissipated – how does Fortitude hold up, and what does it suggest about the future of one of extreme metal’s most successful modern acts?
It holds up super well and suggests a bright future indeed! …albeit with a few caveats. I might not have been as down on it as Eden was, but I was pretty unimpressed with Gojira’s previous record, the otherwise largely lauded Magma (2016). It wasn’t that that the progressive metal Titans had simplified their sound or song structures so much. In fact, the more straight forward moments on the record were often its strongest. No, it was the more “progressive” and seemingly directionless sections that littered the record that gave me cause for concern and filled me with anxiety about what might come next. That anxiety was largely assuaged, with the release of its follow-up’s first official single, “Born for One Thing,” which showcased a brilliant blend of the band’s old-school extremity with their newfound sense of grove and melody.
Sepultura have always been one of Gojira’s most cited influences, but here the inspiration shifts from the mechanical assault of Chaos A.D. (1993) to the more naturalistic, and world-influence sound of Roots (1996). The influence is most apparent on “Amazonia”, with its prominent use of jaw harp and driving, nu-metal stomp but the influence is pretty apparent across the rest of the record as well, even and especially down to the bass tones. Other early highlights like “New Found” and “Hold” on similarly blend the intensity of Gojira’s older material with their more melodic, modern approach. What’s really surprising is how well the previously stand-alone single “Another World” fits into Fortitude, and just how much better it sounds in the context of the record, its seemingly fatalistic environmental pessimism balanced out by the rest of the record’s calls to action and the band’s real-world collaboration with affected indigenous cultures. Unfortunately, the band aren’t quite capable of keeping up this truly striking run of form.
Like Magma, Fortitude is an album of two distinct halves, and as with Magma, it’s the first half that’s more consistent and convincing. Fortitude’s first five tracks are as solid as any Gojira have strung together in the past. Yet, while the album’s back half still maintains a fairly high level of quality, it doesn’t come together quite as cohesively as the first. The two sections are divided by its title track and its conjoined companion “The Chant,” both of which take the “world music” aspect that reared its head on “Amazonia” and run it through a campfire, kumbaya-filter (for better or worse). The pair work better than any of the similarly “abstract” and contemplative material on Magma, forming a solid centrepiece at Fortitude’s heart.
What comes after, however, is less convincing. “Sphynx” is sure to excite a lot of old-school Gojira fans with its barrage of pick-scrapes and staccato riffing, Yet the track also feels more like a pastiche of Gojira’s sound, rather than a true invocation of what made them so great in the first place. “Into the Storm” fares a lot better, adding a splash of the band’s newfound melody alongside it’s “Explosia”-esque “Go!” and Meshuggah-style riffing. “Into the Storm” along with “Born for One Thing” are perhaps the best example of Gojira’s new and old-school approaches. With “The Trials” and “Grind”, however, the band revert back to mere imitation, essentially rehashing L’Enfant Sauvage’s closing diptych of “Born in Winter” and “The Fall” (2012). “Grind” is particularly ill-fitting, coming out of seemingly nowhere with an array of unprecedented heaviness and aggression, only to spend the latter half of its runtime fading out, without every really going anywhere, so that the whole album ends on an uneventful and somewhat frustrating note.
In many ways, “Grind” is indicative of Fortitude as a whole. I’ve heard and read many other fans and reviewers praising the track for its heaviness but compared to something like “Global Warming” it’s a not even in the same solar system. Most things aren’t, to be fair, and heaviness needed be conducive nor coincidental with quality. But too many times on Fortitude especially during its later moments, Gojira feel like they’re holding themselves back, when the songs both call for and would be better served by pushing at least a little bit harder. The slight shaving off of the edges on Magma – for all the cries of commercial aspirations and interference that went around – felt like a natural fit for the mood of the record, which is of course intimately tied to the passing of the Duplantier brothers’ mother. Here, the band sound angry, revitalised, and impassioned, but the music doesn’t always reflect that energy.
In many ways, Fortitude would have made for a more logical step between L’Enfant Sauvage and Magma. There are moments when it feels like the culmination of everything Gojira have done before, but just as many, if not more, where they feel like they’re rehashing ideas they’ve expressed more effectively in the past, or else are held back by what came immediately before; existing in the shadow of Magma’s template, rather than naturally pushing forward. For my money, Fortitude is a far better record than Magma, but also one which seems more calculated and less sincere. It’s also a far cry in terms of both quality and identity from the three albums that came before Magma, and while each new Gojira album needn’t be the album of their career, it should still sound like they want it to be. Fortitude is great, but it could have been even greater, and, in retrospect, I suspect it will be seen as somewhat of a course correction or transitional record, rather than its own definitive statement.
Gojira’s Fortitude was released on April 30th. You can purchase it by standing outside your home and yelling “WHALES!!!” until a copy appears as if from the earth itself.