[2 November 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Not exactly the coziest of bedfellows, France and America go together about as well as oil and water, both cultures viewing the other with barely-hidden condescension, each country oddly intrigued by the other, but glad they don’t live there. So it’s no surprise at all that French interpretations of guitar-based rock music have completely failed to attract large audiences Stateside, aside from cult faves Stereolab. However, the tide is definitely starting to turn, thanks to Gojira, a hard-working metal band from the Southwest coast of France, a foursome that finds itself all of a sudden leading an unprecedented wave of exceptional French heavy acts (including Deathspell Omega, Hacride, Alcest, Blut Aus Nord, Year of No Light, Eths, Destinity, Peste Noire, and Dagoba) that continually attract attention in the underground scene. However, it’s Gojira’s cunning integration of subtle innovation within a decidedly American-sounding style of metal, not to mention a willingness to tour constantly, that has quickly established Gojira as France’s most successful musical export since techno darlings Air.
Led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Joe Duplantier, Gojira doesn’t hide its influences one bit, specializing in the same mid-paced, “post-thrash” style of Pantera, Machine Head, Neurosis, and Lamb of God, but like Brazilian greats Sepultura, Canada’s Voivod, and Sweden’s Meshuggah, the Bayonne natives take that American-made sound and add plenty of foreign mystique to it, thanks to the implementation of unique percussion, off-kilter, unpredictable riffing styles, and lyrics that dwell on more philosophical themes than usual. Their second and third albums, 2003’s The Link and 2005’s breakthrough From Mars to Sirius had the band and its music steadily evolving, but it’s with the new record, The Way of All Flesh, that all the elements truly start to gel, yielding one of the most spellbinding metal albums of 2008, one with the potential to be absolutely huge in America.
Achieving that key balance between accessibility and bravely forward-thinking is far from easy in extreme metal, but The Way of All Flesh pulls it off with aplomb. The fact that lead single “Vacuity” is buried nearly an hour into the album speaks to the quality of the songs, but nevertheless, the track is a perfect encapsulation of what this record is all about. The album’s forceful punch is undeniable, and you hear it immediately on “Vacuity”, Duplantier’s menacing riff punctuated by his brother Mario’s muted cymbal-punctuated march, the ominous chorus not only mighty, but mighty catchy at that. A crazed combination of Voivod’s angularity and Meshuggah’s taut aggression, “Toxic Garbage Island” is a ferocious barrage of pinch harmonics, palm-muted riffs, and enough double-kick beats to knock the wind out of you, but underneath all the density lies Duplantier’s penchant for eloquent lyrics, which yield some surprisingly indelible imagery: “The world is sliding away / In a vortex of floating refuse / With the sacred one you have lost…It’s a plastic bag in the sea”.
The audacious “A Sight to Behold” revolves around a murky, slithering synth riff, Duplantier’s vocoder-enhanced vocals robotic, while “Oroborus” takes a simple hammer-on idea and constructs a five minute song around it. The band’s signature, palm-muted raking sound, made famous on From Mars to Sirius‘s “Flying Whales”, creeps back into “All the Tears” and “Wolf Down the Earth”; the percussive “Yama’s Messengers” is absolutely punishing; while, conversely, the brooding instrumental “The Silver Chord” sees the band exploring more textured sounds than ever before. It’s on the near ten-minute centerpiece “The Art of Dying”, however, where everything comes together most perfectly, its tribal, bamboo percussion intro hearkening back to Sepultura’s seminal Roots, before tearing into a vicious, downtuned riff straight out of Meshuggah’s oeuvre, with Duplantier’s authoritative roar mirroring that of Jens Kidman. Four minutes in, though, the song transforms into something wholly unique, melody, dissonance, and brutality colliding all at once, culminating in a coda centered around a simple yet classy rhythm riff that pays homage to the innovative style of Voivod’s legendary Denis “Piggy” D’Amour.
Not since the late Chuck Schuldiner (of metal greats Death) have we had a songwriter so willing to explore the spiritual side of metal, and Duplantier is in peak form on The Way of All Flesh. His themes continue to dwell on the environmental, elemental, spiritual, and metaphysical, and his choice of words often poetic, but never lofty. His message is simple, but unlike the overtly blunt approach that tends to ironically lessen the impact of many songs in metal today, Duplantier’s sincerity and complete lack of pretension makes his already extraordinary music resonate even more with listeners, and which is a big reason why kids in America, Europe, South America, everywhere, will be drawn to Gojira more than ever before.
I find it hard to believe that this picture on the wall is everything
I do understand all the prayers, life is so sharp and hurts so bad
What does it mean to be dying, what if you take the guts and brain away?
Is it this blood and heartbeat that you call life?
Every effort to ignore it is unavailing, we all have to die
Is it too late to dull the edges of the pain? I have to try
This is another dimension
You can scatter ashes to the winds
And even buried in the ground I’m still there