How very difficult it is, in a metal landscape more saturated with music than ever before, to establish a distinctive sound — so distinctive that even brief excerpts from any randomly chosen song will shout the band’s name. How much more difficult it must be for a band who have accomplished that feat to move forward, to create something that’s genuinely new (and riveting) without sacrificing the character of the music that makes it so instantly recognizable. Yet that’s the trick that Gojira have pulled off on their new album L’Enfant Sauvage.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has closely followed Gojira’s meteoric trajectory. From one album to the next, the Duplantier brothers and their comrades Jean-Michel Labadie and Christian Andreu have displayed consistent intelligence, attention to detail, and consummate craftsmanship both in composing their works and in performing them. Refreshingly, they have persisted in following their own muse, without pandering to trends or commercial inducements. They’ve become popular without grasping for popularity, both challenging listeners and pleasing them, evolving along a path they’ve carved for themselves while pulling increasing numbers of slobbering fans along in the vortex of their slipstream.
The essential ingredients of Gojira’s sound are all present in the new songs: the stomping syncopated rhythms and odd time signatures; Mario Duplantier’s complex, off-kilter percussion; the squealing whine of a harmonic pickslide; the use of repeating, hypnotic, imminently headbangable riffs; the dominance of dissonance that still leaves room for head-grabbing melodies; the attention to mood-altering dynamics and a penchant for experimentation; and Joe Duplantier’s distinctive mid-range howl that’s somehow capable of carrying a melody as well as clawing flesh.
And of course, the music is still some of the heaviest matter in the universe: it crushes, while leaving that distinctive Gojira stamp on your mangled carcass.
Yet L’Enfant Sauvage holds surprises in store that make the album intriguing as well as pulverizing, like veins of gold that sparkle unexpectedly in a deep, well-mined strike.
Gojira’s motifs are by now so familiar and so effective that the surprising moments on L’Enfant Sauvage are almost as satisfying as the fix we Gojira junkies expect and need. But one without the other would be disappointing. These are among the moments, both familiar and unexpected, that stand out for this reviewer:
- The combination of brutal, bass-heavy, rivet-driving rhythms and skittering higher-ranged guitar leads that rears its head off and on all the way through the album
- The last 2 1/2 minutes of “Explosia”, with the repeating riff chugging away like a driving train, with Mario Duplantier off on some kind of percussive galavant whose course only he knows, and the clanging guitar notes at the end sounding like the accompaniment to a gunfight at high noon in a Western movie
- The surprising blast of double bass and Joe’s voice soaring over the chiseling whirr of a tremolo guitar near the end of “L’Enfant Sauvage”
- The call-and-response of layered clean vocals and wolfish growls on “Liquid Fire”, which are then mirrored by the call-and-response of the deep, hammering rhythm chords and that skittering lead guitar in the song’s second half
- Every goddamned second of the head-nodding interlude called “The Wild Healer” — a pulsating synthesizer melody, almost like a syncopated calliope, that provides the foundation for percussive variations
- The moment at 1:18 in “Planned Obsolescence” when the pummeling riffs and fret-slides transition to an ominous four-note melody and processed robotic vocals, plus the climbing musical motif that comes later, plus the descent of relative quiet in the outro, with solitary guitar notes and a muffled drumbeat
- The utterly jolting, artillery-fire quality that persists throughout “Mouth of Kala” and a familiar, extended, oh-so-sweet repeated musical pattern at the end of the song
- The swirling, see-saw synthesizer passages that start “The Gift of Guilt” and return again before the song ends
- The proggy picking and drumming and staggered vocal proclamations that start at about the 3:20 mark of “Pain Is A Master”
- The intro to “Born In Winter”, a song like nothing else on this album, in which the guitar lead mimics the style of the pulsating, swimming synthesizer start to “The Gift of Guilt”; Joe Duplantier delivers clean vocals like some young, French version of Leonard Cohen; and his brother Mario proves himself again to be one of the most stunning drummers in modern metal
- The grinding bass chords and trampling drum beats, the tremolo bridge, and the first genuine death metal gutturals on perhaps the most unexpected and challenging song on L’Enfant Sauvage — “The Fall” — which ends in a haze of freaked-out guitar noise. This voracious, dark, infernal beast has become my favorite track on the album.
There are songs on earlier Gojira albums that are more thoroughly experimental than anything on L’Enfant Sauvage. Nothing will ever completely replace that first experience of space-faring whale song on From Mars To Sirius. There is only one first time for anything.
But having said that, L’Enfant Sauvage is a consistently satisfying, frequently brilliant album that is one of 2012’s must-listen experiences. It proves this all over again: Gojira are in a league of their own. It also proves that what we knew of this band will not remain the same, and that their meteoric trajectory may be veering off toward uncharted territories.
(L’Enfant Sauvage was released yesterday by Roadrunner Records, and you can still hear the full-album stream via this link.)