Album: Magma (2016)
Genre: Progressive heavy metal
Where to buy: here
I wanted to like Magma, Gojira’s 2016 release, more than I did at first listen. When I initially gave it a run-through, I found the riffs to be a bit unimaginative, in the way that generic 70s heavy metal can be, where a song is built around one rather boring riff without much creativity. The production alternates between 70s heavy metal and nu-metal from the early 2000s. The screaming vocals don’t stand out enough to be remarkable, and I thought the end result the sonic equivalent of mixing all the primary colors until you get a thick brown. But after a few listens, I came to appreciate the songwriting and production choices much more than the first time. And while that repositioning isn’t quite the same as learning to love the more challenging compositions of Charles Mingus, Magma settles nicely as a competent and successful album. Gojira hit what they aimed for.
Most of the songs on this short album (under 44 minutes) are structured on a single main riff, usually right up front at the start or appearing soon thereafter, and underlying almost the entire rest of the track. The opening track, “The Shooting Star,” is a prime example, and sets the tone for the rest of the album. The main riff dives straight into the ground with a low fuzz, and pulses there throughout the verses, choruses, and bridge. It’s not flashy, it’s not even necessarily noticeable, and you probably won’t hum it when the track ends. But it’s extremely effective at setting a tone – to wit, dark, depressing, dry, and very tight. The galloping sixteenth notes under the main riff of “Stranded” are not once misplaced, and even as the guitars remain less-than-memorable, it is clear the band is playing with grim efficiency. Guitarists Joe Duplantier and Christian Andreu make no mistakes, and there are a few moments that stand out. The upper-register screeches that accompany the main riffs of “Stranded” and “Only Pain” are among those rare, perfectly distorted musical punctuation marks.
There is something wonderfully minimal about Magma. The album seems to plod along from one dark and subtly effective track to the next, deceptive in its intention to do just that. These tracks are radio-friendly, most clocking in between 4 and 5 minutes. There are no 8-minute epics here. There are no 60-bar guitar solos. There are no dramatic and unjustified shifts in tempo and meter every few bars, as with much other progressive metal. This Gojira is restrained and measured. It’s easy to imagine these songs as background music in an action movie, during the parts where you’re watching other people prepare to do important things, such as fly on a spaceship or pull themselves out of a dirty swamp in a heavy rain.
I wish I could say I appreciated the lyrics on an even slightly ironic level, but I can’t get behind “When you change yourself, you change the world” (“Silvera”) or “You’re away, alive/On the moon, round” (“Magma”). It’s not much better in the songs. You’re better off listening to the music and ignoring the lyrics, though this is of course common across many genres and not a problem unique to metal. On the bright side, the lyrics are appropriately depressing for the music, so at least the band had a goal and achieved it. Magma is an earnest, tightly-produced, dark progressive metal album, and its teleology reveals itself to the patient listener.