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Gojira’s Magma: A Magnificent Mixed Bag

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Making a great album is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part is self-explanatory, but the curse part is this: you now face an uphill battle against expectations, meaning you need to top, or at least match, that album. And Hanneman help you if you do manage to top/match that album – let alone top/match that album multiple times. Each victory ensures that the next victory will harder earned.

To that end, Gojira’s Magma is a vague disappointment and a massive victory: a disappointment because it’s probably their weakest album since before From Mars to Sirius, and a victory because it’s still really, really, REALLY good.

So let’s start with what doesn’t work:

For one thing, two cuts off of Magma – “Yellow Stone” and “Liberation” — are instrumental doodles, more in the vein of the filler from Tool’s 10,000 Days than, say, “Orion.” They’re not all that interesting and repeat listens don’t help them very much; they seem destined to be left off of future mp3 players and playlists, or at least just skipped on CD/vinyl editions.

For another thing, there’s frontman Joe Duplantier’s overuse of clean vocals. Yes, I know, it is such a cliché for a metal dude to complain about pretty singing in their extreme music, but that’s just it – Duplantier’s singing isn’t pretty. It’s mostly an affectation-free drone that sounds something like Snake from Voivod had Snake from Voivod been lobotomized and recorded from inside an echo chamber. Duplantier has always used this style of singing in small doses, and in those relatively small doses, it’s absolutely fine. The problem is that four of Magma’s ten tracks – “The Shooting Star,” “Pray,” “Low Lands,” and the title track – predominantly, if not entirely, feature these kinds of vocals. They’re not bad, per se, but the lack of dynamics takes a lot of getting used to; I suspect the style is intended to convey some sense of depression of the sensation that everything is less vivid as a result of depression – but, unfortunately, that doesn’t make them any more interesting for the ears. The only track on which they’re not initially jarring is “Low Lands,” which is already pretty mellow (save for the last third, which revolves around what sounds like a totally gnarly variation on the band’s own “Flying Whales”). But on a song like “Pray,” which has a “Spheres of Madness”-esque riff that is one of Gojira’s heaviest to date, they can really take you out of the song. Even when you do, eventually, adapt to the aesthetic, these vocals remain a weak spot weighing down otherwise great songs.

That may sound harsh, but it’s actually a fairly minor problem in the scheme of things, and Magma is a thousand times stronger than most of the year’s metal releases regardless. Even with the soporific vocals, those tracks manage to be pretty righteous; musically, there’s not a damned thing wrong with ‘em.

Elsewhere, the band hews a little more closely to their strengths, and, unsurprisingly, hit the ball way the fuck out of the park. “Silvera,” “The Cell,” “Stranded,” and “Only Pain” can all stand confidently side-by-side with Gojira’s best material. If those four songs were the only material on Magma, it would stand beside Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s Arc as the best EP of 2016; as it stands, they have to settle for being part of a very, very good album that may be one of the best of the year despite its flaws.

No one should fault Gojira for taking some creative risks that don’t quite pay off the way they ideally would have. On Magma, the band shot for the moon, but landed amongst the stars. Talk about an uptown problem.

Gojira’s Magma comes out Friday, June 17 on Roadrunner. You can stream the track “Stranded” here and pre-order the album here.

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