If compassion seems like an ill-fitting motivation for a death metal band, it’s important to remember that, over the past 30-plus years, the genre has proven to be a surprisingly effective vehicle for as wide a range of subjects as the imagination will allow. Whether or not the majority of death metal artists have chosen to take advantage of that range, no one can ever accuse Gojira of failing to do their part. Even when the French quartet were still adhering to a traditional death metal template by emulating the likes of Morbid Angel and Death, it was abundantly clear that Gojira had no interest in limiting the emotions they wanted their music to convey.
Crucially, though Gojira formed (under the name Godzilla) in 1996, they didn’t release their debut album Terra Incognita until 2001. Instead, they introduced themselves to the metal underground via a series of four EP-length demos that hewed to a derivative death metal format, complete with stock song titles like “Rigor Mortis” and “Brutal Abortion”. By Terra Incognita, though, the band had carved out their niche by hinging their music around concerns about the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Gojira albums have essentially stuck to that same topical basis ever since. However, they cover many shades of feeling, including not just the anger and righteous indignation one would expect but also introspection and sorrow as well.
Over the last two decades, frontman/lyricist Joe Duplantier has also used the band’s songs as sounding boards to raise questions about the meaning that mortality gives life. That’s precisely what you would eventually want from a style of music where dying is often the primary focus. Merge eco-consciousness with existential rumination and the train of thought naturally leads to the death of the biosphere itself, with the music prodding listeners to consider the prospect and implications of extinction—not just for us, but for other lifeforms as well. Thus, in Gojira’s hands, the ultimate point of death metal is to affirm life, which comes across more than ever on their seventh studio album Fortitude, a rallying cry for collective resilience in the face of a worldwide crisis that was written and recorded, it turns out, before the pandemic.
Duplantier has said that he would have pursued environmental activism as a career were it not for his life path solidifying around music. His reverence for life resounds so persistently throughout the band’s body of work that the music verges on a kind of primal rapture: an almost devotional expression of soul-searching set ablaze within a flaming metallic roar. Of course, listeners just coming to the party with Fortitude should understand that Gojira have long bucked purist notions of what metal is “supposed” to sound like. As early as 2003’s sophomore effort The Link, for example, Duplantier significantly opened his vocals up to melody while still maintaining the growling technique he still employs today. But it’s even more telling that Gojira saw fit to close The Link with the tranquil sounds of birds chirping at daybreak—a bold choice for an album that oozes with the band’s love for the ferocious attack of Covenant-era Morbid Angel.
The same year that The Link was released, Gojira foreshadowed their ever-broadening horizons by performing a relatively subdued but no less gripping live score for the 1926 silent film Maciste all’inferno. Moving on, the next album proper, 2005’s From Mars to Sirius, opened with whalesong before unveiling what would come to be known as its signature hybrid of death metal with progressive, math, and groove elements. Each successive album has, in turn, reflected a greater emphasis on dynamics, atmosphere, and accessibility. So much so that by 2016’s Magma, an inward-pointing journey into grief, Gojira began to resemble something like a space rock outfit with a brooding, cavernous sound ready-built for arenas. Fortitude continues in that same vein, with some new wrinkles thrown in as always.
The robust response to the new album, which displaced DJ Khaled at the top of the Billboard album chart about two weeks after its release, would suggest that constant change has been both creatively and commercially beneficial for Gojira. Fellow musicians like Lamb Of God’s Randy Blythe and Jami Morgan of Code Orange have been profuse with their compliments, both hailing the album as the new bar for heavy acts to try and match. Remarkably, Gojira are making a big splash without entirely abandoning their origins or their tendency to wear their harsher influences on their sleeve—even as they try their hand at straight, blues-inspired rock (“The Chant”), middle-of-the-road metal with a touch of power balladry (“New Found”), sweeping, symphonic metal (“Another World”) and something akin to the African-American slave spiritual/work song (title track “Fortitude”).
On previous offerings, Gojira drew freely from techniques made famous by math-metal avatars like Meshuggah and The Dillinger Escape Plan. This time, album opener “Born for One Thing” pays homage to not one but two tracks (“Straighthate” and “Breed Apart”) from Sepultura’s 1996 barrier-breaking landmark Roots, while also nodding to the iconic main riff from Slayer’s 1990 classic “Seasons in the Abyss”. The band tips its cap to Roots again on the next track, “Amazonia”, which opens with a catchy, simple, Beavis and Butt-Head-worthy lick played on a jaw harp (a reference to the berimbau intro on the Roots track “Attitude”), while the percussion break in “Another World” borrows from the Afro-Latin infusions that Sepultura famously introduced to metal.
Lyrically, “Amazonia” decries the Brazilian government’s unrelenting deforestation of the Amazon, along with the corresponding displacement of the indigenous peoples native to the region. No surprise, the visual aesthetic of the video is yet again meant to signal back to Roots, which indirectly illuminated the effects of land-relocation policies on Brazil’s indigenous population, a mid-’90s snapshot of the way modernity threatens everything in its path. Indeed, the present-day would seem like the most appropriate moment in history for Gojira’s message, now that the majority of the world’s population has been forced to reconsider aspects of our way of life that no longer appear tenable.
Unfortunately, 20 years of the same thematic thrust—coupled with the new material’s proximity to generic heavy rock—blunt the new material’s impact just as the stage is set for Gojira to shine. Where a song like “Another World” showcases the musical agility the band built its reputation on, the lead-footed riff on “Amazonia” could have been written by a band that would trip over itself trying to play Gojira’s previous work. And the song’s crude refrain of “you’re-in-the-Am-a-zon” comes off as surprisingly clumsy given the fertility of a subject that’s obviously close to Duplantier’s heart. To tie-in with “Amazonia”, the band went so far as to launch a fundraising auction that raised more than four times its initial goal. Perhaps for the first time, though, it sounds like the creativity in the music is starting to lag behind the issues Duplantier wants to communicate.
To be fair, most bands that have ever played death metal have mellowed over time. Even some of the most revered pillars of the genre have shifted gears way more drastically than Gojira ever have. Compared to, say, Opeth, Gojira have never completely watered themselves down, and they still haven’t lost their singular ability to change up their approach mid-song. If you don’t fancy one section of a given tune, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy where the song goes next. Likewise, drummer Mario Duplantier has a knack for being both inventive and discreet at the same time, showing off his prodigious chops just enough to inspire air-drumming but never so much that it overwhelms the music. And lead guitarist Christian Andreu’s solos remain as flavorful and searing as ever.
Meanwhile, Joe Duplantier, who assumed the role as the band’s in-house producer in time for 2008’s The Way of All Flesh, has stressed that he takes the craft of production very seriously. It shows on Fortitude, where the drums practically sing throughout the entire duration of the album, even when the rest of the band is blaring at full volume. It also doesn’t hurt that legendary producer Andy Wallace (famous for his work on classics by Slayer, Sepultura, System of a Down, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, etc.) came out of retirement to provide the mix. The new material certainly sounds magnificent, and it’s not like Gojira have run out of ideas. But you have to wonder whether a band this unorthodox is best served by flirting with the stereotypical approach we’ve heard countless times from acts who appeared on Ozzfest and sold their t-shirts at Hot Topic a generation ago. It would be wrong for Gojira to be lumped in with those bands—it would be worse for them to do it to themselves.
Time and again, Gojira have proven that they can introduce new elements to their style without compromising. As a case in point, in 2008, the band recorded an acoustic rendition of “Wisdom Comes”—one of the heaviest, fastest, and most abrasive tunes in their discography. The acoustic version was clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek, yet Gojira also played the song with perfect, note-for-note precision, making sure to match the blistering, all-out attack of the original. Any band that’s capable of pulling that off would do well to remind themselves that what musicians refer to as “maturity” often comes with a price. If Gojira haven’t betrayed their essence with Fortitude, they appear to be headed in that direction. For all the album’s attributes, it has all the markings of a last exit before going too far.
The world isn’t exactly starved for another gifted, challenging metal band that follows Metallica off the cliff into the realm of mega-popular mediocrity. Let’s hope Gojira don’t go that route. As it stands, Fortitude reveals enough ingenuity and spirit to suggest that it’s not too late.