On their sixth full-length album Magma, progressive metal band Gojira experiment with influences from further afield while processing the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one. Four years on from 2012’s astonishing L’Enfant Sauvage, the French quartet’s blend of blisteringly heavy death metal, fascinating progressive tendencies, and subtle atmospheric flourishes has lost none of its force or vitality.
Where previous albums dealt with broad, global issues – the environment, death and mortality, as well as the alienation of mankind from nature in modern industrial society – Magma is far more personal, inspired by the recent loss of the Joe (guitar/vocals) and Mario (drums) Duplantier’s mother to cancer. It’s also the first album completed in the recording studio the band recently built themselves in New York City, and thus a very different recording environment for the band. Magma sees them turn their gaze inwards in processing this loss as well as the change in environment, and this process of introspection has resulted in the band’s most human and emotionally powerful album yet.
Where previous albums were sprawling epics of dazzling technical brilliance, Magma sees the band exploring a more streamlined and, dare I say it, accessible sound. This album marks vocalist Joe Duplantier’s first foray into incorporating clean singing as a major part of his repertoir, with some songs here consisting entirely of clean voclas, though often in addition to his trademark roar. And the songs here are, for the most part, much simpler, relying on fewer – but more distinct – motifs as defining features of each song. Lyrically and musically this album is saturated with a feeling of angst and despair, and given the background to this album’s completion and the experiences of the band over the last four years it is not hard to understand its source.
But much of what listeners have come to love about Gojira remains in place here. Silvera’s brutal riffage and savage roars are a kick to the teeth, while its stunning melodic tapping section serves as a perfect counterweight to the heaviness. Stranded’s sharp, angular riffs and anthemic chorus is instantly infectious, while The Cell’s central riff could have been written by Meshuggah themselves. The atmospheric opening track The Shooting Star’s central riff is a behemoth that will immediately have your head nodding along, with Joe Duplantier’s clean vocals bringing to mind some of Mastodon’s more recent output.
The album’s title track is perhaps the most successful example of the new influences Gojira are exploring. It contrasts heavy downtuned chugging with Duplantier’s melodic croon, as well as a fantastic melodic pinch harmonic motif. The haunting choruses, aggressive vocals, brutal fretwork and anthemic chorus of Pray result in a tour de force, a standout track I find myself revisiting frequently. Only Pain is, in my estimation, one of Gojira’s heaviest songs to date, musically and emotionally, touching on themes of futility and suffering. The rawness of the muscular guitar riffs, with down-tuned djent rhythmic sections, driven onwards by the merciless double-bass drumming, makes this a real highlight, and probably my favourite from the whole album.
The final ‘real’ track of the album, the deeply atmospheric Low Lands is a genuinely touching, moving song. It seems to be written directly to the Duplantier brothers’ recently deceased mother Patricia Rosa, asking what she sees in the afterlife “while you drift away from all the plagues of this world”. The sincerity of this song and the glimpse it provides into the grief that led to its creation make for a gripping listen.
The album is not without its flaws, however. Though Magma technically lasts 43 minutes and has ten tracks, this disguises the fact that Yellow Stone and Liberation are instrumental pieces, and it is hard to shake the feeling that they were simply intended to pad out the track listing. Yellow Stone doesn’t really go anywhere. This would be less if an issue on a longer album but with an album this brief it feels like a missed opportunity. Liberation also seems like a curious choice for an album closer, seeming to have very little in common with any of the other tracks here. But it is a very pretty piece, written for their late mother – and on that level it’s a very poignant note on which to end this deeply personal album.
Gojira’s experiment with a more streamlined and introspective sound on Magma was a risky proposition given how averse to change many metal fans are, often preferring consistency over variety. But it has certainly paid off for them. A consistently astonishing album, brimming with ambition and a real sense of urgency and sincerity, Magma cements Gojira’s place among the leading metal bands of 2016.