Magma sees french progressive death metal masters Gojira depart from their signature sound and explore an entirely different side of their music. The results of that are interesting and make this album on of the most polarizing musical experiences of this year so far.
Formed in 1996, Gojira acted under the name of Godzilla until 2001 before the band had to change their name into what we’ve known them as for about 15 years now due to legal reasons. Following their name change, Gojira went on to develop their very own style of progressive death metal, infused with technicality and complexity without obscuring its catchiness and accessability too much, taking inspiration from bands such as Meshuggah and Morbid Angel. Along the way Gojira released albums that would go on to become essential records for metal such as their 2001 debut Terra Incognita and 2005 masterpiece From Mars to Sirius that saw the band taking their sound to another level, not only in production quality, but also in terms of heaviness, atmosphere, technicality and songwriting ability. To this day From Mars to Sirius continues to be an incredibly important album, towering high with its absolutely monumental and crushing sound, powerful vocals, infectious rhythms and abstract lyrical themes focussing on the connection between man and nature as well as the body and the spirit, taking place in the setting of a flooded planet, inhabited by the now flying whales.
It was the seemingly effortless fusion of highly technical composing, especially on the drums, paired with the welcoming, accessible nature of riffing, lush with the use of techniques that would become pivotal in shaping the band’s sound and the very strong vision behind the music that would ultimately set Gojira apart from everyone else and make them what they are.
The Way of All Flesh saw Gojira continue down that path as they kept gaining popularity and explored the sound they established on their previous album and experimented with it in very interesting ways on songs such as A Sight to Behold.
Released in 2012, the band’s fifth album L’Enfant Sauvage marked the first step towards a more simplistic sound, featuring the traditional song structures that the band used to avoid on previous albums. Despite the changes made to the music, L’Enfant Sauvage was a quite well balanced album, but what it did was, that it put the band on the spot. Gojira had built up a very diverse, yet coherent back-catalog up until that point, but it became clear that the band had to take their sound somewhere new if they were to release another album.
I was as excited as I was concerned as I waited for this album and followed the news around it quite closely ever since the project started to take a clearer form about a year ago. Now, Gojira return and what they present us with is an album that leaves the gate with a long story to it already. Not only did brothers Joseph and Mario Duplantier lose their mother during the recording process, the band also ended up recording and scrapping what amounted to an entire album, claiming that it “didn’t live up to the band’s standards”. On top of that vocalist and guitarist Joseph Duplantier moved to New York to build the Silver Cord Studio pretty much all by himself. A recording studio that was the base of operation for the band as they recorded what they described as “feeling just right for them”.
As we drew closer to the release of the album and the promotion started to pick up, all I had to go by to get an impression of the new album were articles and trailers. The trailers showed the band presenting a very esoteric and emotional sound as they brought back some additional instruments like flutes. I was excited for the album and highly anticipated the first new material off of it.
Stranded and Silvera are the songs that ended up getting released prior to the album itself and I have to say that both of those tracks completely shattered my expectations. Negatively. Both songs were very simplistic and predictable, again featuring traditional song structures instead of the winding and progressing compositions Gojira used to deliver in the past. I felt a very strong groove metal influence emanating from those tracks and felt like the heaviness, intensity and technicality the band used to have was gone as the new songs failed to deliver the intimacy and emotions this album was supposed to contain. I feel like the songwriting on Magma in general doesn’t facilitate a very strong foundation for these two qualities since the band ends up embracing very simplistic songwriting and what feels like a very strong 2000s groove metal influence to me.
Throughout the album there are flashes of Gojira’s old sound and new ideas that sound like they could go somewhere, but ultimately end up failing due to how predictable and outright stagnant most of those songs are. There really isn’t a lot of diversity or development throughout the compositions on this record. This is most apparent on tracks like The Cell, that contains my favorite section off of this album. The track starts of sounding like it’s right off of The Way of All Flesh or L’Enfant Sauvage featuring tremolo-picked guitar melodies in the background and polyrhythmic drumming at the front. However, the guitars come in with bended, groove metal chords that can’t deliver the heaviness and weight I was expecting to set in at that point.
The trend continues on the title track that shows some Mastodon influence seeping through in the guitarplaying, but ultimately just has the band sitting on the same repetitive sections over and over again, without the song going anywhere. Right after that we have Pray, the ending of which was featured in the trailer that would make me the most excited for this album, as it is one of the most emotional things I’ve heard from Gojira since Where Dragons Dwell off of From Mars to Sirius. The ending of this track has some really distant vocals and tribal drums going on that create emotional impact before the band, again, erupts into something that sounds like it’s straight off of some of their previous albums. Parts like this are where this album comes closest to reaching the level of impact that Gojira’s music used to have, in my eyes. Much like most of the other tracks on this album the rest of the track is just too stagnant though and I feel like the chorus is in direct contrast to the tone the verses try to hit.
Liberation, a quiet, esoteric piece featuring hand drums and acoustic guitars, constitutes the album closer. However, I feel like it would’ve served much better as an interlude halfway through the record. Patterns like this keep repeating throughout Magma as the band approaches their new sound from different angles, presenting some interesting ideas here and there, but ultimately never really taking it into a satisfactory direction in my eyes.
I also felt like the general sound and production of this album didn’t really help improving my impression of it. The mix is a bit unbalanced with the guitars overpowering the rest of the music a bit most of the time and the drums, guitars, vocals, really everything just missing punch and impact. I also think that the clean vocals the band likes to utilize on some of the songs here do not really go well with their sound. I always really liked Joseph’s screams in the past, since they did not only carry a lot of his voice in them already, but also had a very powerful sound to them. His clean singing, however, didn’t end up enriching the music on Magma with any new qualities for me.
I honestly feel like Magma is not the bundle of powerful catharsis it was supposed to be and just has an air of accessability and simplicity to it that is very unlike Gojira in my eyes. The heavy riffing is mostly too groove metal influenced and the new additions to the sound like these squealing guitar notes that can be heard on tracks like Stranded have a really jarring effect for me. Magma is lacking the balance between technicality, complexity and ambition that met with catchy and heavy rhythms in the past. The band’s turn towards a more conventional sound makes this album a quite unremarkable experience for me and the few parts that do hold some potential can only rectify so much about all the things on this record that do not resonate with me at all.