Metal's growing damn fast for a genre pushing 40. While volume and virtuosity still reign, hordes of practitioners have dumped a host of 20th-century stereotypes—especially rock-star shit. Example: Instead of lording over the backstage scene after shows, band members hang at merch tables for signing and serious discussions. The topic depends on who's talking—degreed individuals are legion in metal now; inspired autodidacts, more common still. Ongoing themes range from South Carolina death-metal band Nile's Egyptology to Shadows Fall singer Brian Fair's considered espousal of vegetarianism and Buddhist thought.
For progressive French death-metal quartet Gojira (we know their namesake as Godzilla), the issue of choice is the environment. Together since 2001, the group, who hail from the Basque city of Bayonne, hit international pay dirt with From Mars to Sirius (released stateside on Prosthetic Records in 2006). Currently in the midst of their third U.S. tour in just over a year, the band are but the tip of a Gallic iceberg that harbors the likes of symphonic black-metal howlers Anorexia Nervosa, weapons-grade thrashmasters Scarve, and shoe-gaze heavyweights Year of No Light. What's most impressive about the growth spurt is its speed; 10 years ago, France had zero significant metal scene.
"I don't think it's just in extreme music that this is happening," guitarist and singer Joe Duplantier explains by phone from a hotel room in Houston. "French culture in general seems to be on the rebound. While I'm no expert, I do have a theory: The Second World War was very traumatic for France. You hear a lot about the French Resistance, but a very small percentage of the population was actually involved in it. Most people either actively collaborated with the Nazis or just tried to stay out of their way. After the war, it created this kind of national shame that lasted for decades. The new generation is finally shaking that off."
The sloughing process began in earnest for Gojira on album number two: 2005's The Link. Draping their namesake creature's ponderousness with rectilinear riffs quickened by precision blast beats and furious speed-picking, the band state their position most eloquently on "Embrace the World." "Gaia's alive for good," Duplantier roars. "Under my feet, the forest/Over me, the largeness." As always for Gojira, the spaces between sounds carry as much weight as the sounds themselves.
"Silence is very important to us," says Duplantier, "something we feel gives our music more power than if we were just playing all the time. Because of this, sometimes a song is a big mess when we first play it, but we always work it through. We very much practice stopping and starting together, actually doing exercises just for that."
For all its promise, The Link pales before From Mars to Sirius. "Water Planet" shifts, nimble as a shark in estrus, between monumental chromatics and the majestic nebula that decorates verse proper.
"I'm in a mental cage," Duplantier growls melodiously. "I'm locked up." But the band's imagination isn't. Monstrous, alien endgame chords, forged in fires of ice and honed to hyper-jazz perfection, punctuate the dialogue like mile-high blades of colored lightning, drumlessly at first, until the singer yells, "Go!" As they encounter unicorns and flying whales, the band's m.o. takes on a life of its own.
"We're not politicians," says Duplantier, "but we do what we can. We're all on a monthly donation plan with Greenpeace, as individuals and a band. Most importantly, we stay optimistic. We write our songs and try to encourage respect for the Earth and the life on it through poetry and music. You can create a lot of positive energy out of bad situations."
GOJIRA perform with Underneath the Massacre, Behemoth, and Job for a Cowboy on TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 6, at STATION 4; 651.298.0173