The monster returns
Gojira are a very important band to me, as their 2016 album Magma became pivotal in my decision to actively try and enjoy Metal, rather than just letting it pass me by for being "too aggressive". I must have watched the video for Silvera a couple of dozen times before listening to the record and, along with Mastodon, worked my way backwards through their discography, slowly acclimatizing to, then appreciating and finally loving the heavier stuff.
It's been roughly 5 years since Magma, with little else in regards to new music since then, Fortitude has become one of my most anticipated releases for this year. Anticipation that was then emboldened by the few singles that came before the album, showcasing a greater variety of sound and styles than previous projects by the group, without sacrificing much in the way of heaviness.
So when I initially listened to Fortitude in full, I was a little disappointed. The record as a whole has moved further away from their earlier sounds than expected, with the singles ending up as most of the heavier tracks on the album. The album has leaned into Alt-Metal territory, with less emphasis on the progressive technicality that helped set the band apart and without the same heaviness as before, the rhythmic thuds and blasts that made their Groove Metal side so powerful, now feels soft.
I think the biggest problem for me though are the vocals. People have complained about Joe Duplantier's singing voice for a while now, however many of the points made weren't issues for me personally, I didn't need him to have a stronger growl or bigger range etc. especially since the songwriting and playing from the entire band were more than capable of making up for any problems I might have agreed with.
The difference with Fortitude is that, with its Alt-Metal leanings, it is less able to cover up those problems and with in fact has created some. Alt-Metal is a hard genre to get right, as it relies on melody and atmosphere a fair bit more so than most other modern metal sub-genres and if not done correctly can sound bland or even corny. One of the best ways to get around this is with a unique and/or powerful singer, who can cut through the mix in an unusual and interesting way to become a focal point that the rest of the music can be built around.
Deftones and Slipknot are 2 bands that seem to have this down to a science. Chino Moreno has one of the most interesting singing voices in all of metal, capable of becoming a haze that warps around the listener's head and Corey Taylor, while he does have a big mouth, also has a huge vocal range and is able to out-scream most Black Metal singers and out-growl most Death Metal singers. Duplantier can't really do either of these things, or anything of similar substance. So when the music doesn't back him as strongly as it usually does, all of this becomes obvious.
I have spent a much longer amount of time complaining than I usually would, or expected to and anyone who's checked my rating is probably a little surprised as well. Just about everything until now was just to explain how high my hopes had been going in, but doesn't reflect the fact that this album actually gets a fair amount right. So lets talk about some of that:
Despite my complaints of softness, this record is still well within the wheelhouse of Metal. The thunderous drums of Marco Duplantier are still paired with the crushing bass of Jean-Michel Labadie propelling each track forward, acting as the steadiest foundation anyone could possibly ask for. Joe Duplantier's rhythm and Christian Andreu's lead guitars then come in, still screeching and wailing as noisily and as beautifully as ever. This is still Gojira.
The album opens very strongly with Born for One Thing, Amazonia and Another World coming back to back. 3 of the heaviest songs here just letting you know that you're still in for a wild ride.
Born for One Thing begins by immediately creating a build into a fantastic riff. The back and forth between the verse and chorus is great as well, as the song shifts between pounding rhythms and melancholic melodies. The bridge then takes the energy up another level with crazy polyrhythms and pinch harmonies like the best of what Gojira has already made.
Amazonia was one of the singles and an easy favourite from the record. A strong riff with an odd twang to it that reminded me of a mouth harp mixed with some whistling in the background creating an exotic texture. The chorus the slows things down with its own wonderfully catchy guitar riff before the bridge leans even more heavily into the exotic nature of the intro.
Another World is possibly the most "Gojira" track here. Arpeggiated guitars offering light melody before the verses come in with muted strings as the main riff. The bridge then playing with those arpeggios brilliantly in melodic, textural and rhythmic fashions. In some ways playing it safe, but still fun and powerful
We do hit a bit of a snag with the next couple of tracks. Hold On and New Found are 2 songs that, even with several listens, haven't managed to hold my attention the way the other songs have come to. Hold On has a very odd and long intro, with lost of layered vocals and even when the track comes together, it never really takes off, just building to an unappetising crescendo. New Found then follows as one of the flattest songs the band have made. Both of these songs don't make use of dynamic shifts much and as such don't offer the usual push and pull, the build up and drop, the tension and release that would be expected if the group wanted an emotional response.
The title track is an odd interlude, a fairly bland and clunky instrumental with wordless vocals that set-up the chant for the next cut. On one hand it does the job of an interlude perfectly, connecting 2 songs that would have had a much harder transition without it. On the other, the fact that the title track is bland and feels like it was written solely to fill space and connect some dots is quite disheartening.
Gladly The Chant is a much better follow up and the songs from here until the end are all much better than the last 3. Leaning into Alt-Rock territory a bit, the track's titular chant is made for festivals and huge crowds, while the incredibly rare guitar solo is a wonderful and welcome departure. Sphinx, like Another World feels like a quick return to the Gojira sound. This time though, the vocals take on a new level of darkness, layered dissonances, as if they were pulled out of a horror film.
Into the Storm then takes things to a level above this. With percussion that sounds like a runaway train and guitars that create a tense atmosphere for the echoed vocals to ride over the top. This track also has one of the strongest choruses on this album. The Trails, by comparison, is a great example of how to write a slower song and could possibly even be considered a ballad. At least by Gojira standards. It builds, such that by the halfway mark onwards we're getting some of Duplantier's most emotive clean singing ever.
The album closes on a very strong note with Grind. The song manages to put together just about every element that makes Alt-Metal great, even the vocals are more interesting and melodic than usual. Starting off as crushing as they've ever been, the track then takes us on a journey through progressive chaos and through atmospheric choruses and bridges.
Is this the best thing that Gojira have done? No, not when compared to their heyday in the mid 00's to early 10's, but even through the little bits of experimentation that the band are doing you can still feel the core of their sound remaining true and providing some of the most fun and exciting Rock/Metal we've gotten this year. And hopefully, whatever they do next will perfect this new blend they're trying to create here.
Favourites: Born for One Thing, Amazonia, The Chant, Into the Storm, The Trails, Grind
Least Favs: Fortitude