Thursday, 28 January 2016

Living Respectful: From Mars to Sirius, 10 Years On

In dreams we can transcend and transform, change perception and perspective. From Mars to Sirius opener Ocean Planet begins a fluid journey which weaves through dreamlike states and waking aggression, contrasting swathes of alternating passages (sonically personified by moments of crushing heaviness interspersed with calmer moments, fast with slow, loud with quiet, sparse with intense), which make the listener feel at times objective observer whilst at others immersed and involved. These changing dynamics flow through the entire album.

As Ocean Planet opens the album we are greeted by whale song. A calm before the storm, as this slow burning track progresses with alternation between kick drums and palm muted guitar with repeated refrains. Like a tumbling procession of waves cascading, the narrator and listener are carried through oceans and waking dreams alike.

Before long the two collide dragging the listener into the currents below. The lyrical content seems to document an enlightening dreamlike voyage to a receptive traveller; a confused dialogue with mystical whales.

For the message itself, it appears to be one of despair; "The ocean planet is on burn”.


From Mars to Sirius celebrated its 10 year anniversary in the summer of 2015.  Upon release in 2005 the album received high praise for its new sound; progressive, emotive, inspired, and conceptual. Certainly upon first listen all those years ago I was blown away, it seemed revolutionary and has managed to stay timeless, retaining nuances still undiscovered to this day. Certainly at 67 minutes long it is somewhat of a giant, so it is unsurprising that there is much to explore. It is worth noting that for a lengthy album such that it is, the experience is never dragging but continually refreshing and rewarding.

Regardless of sound there was another element to the record which set it apart from its contemporaries. The fundamental core of the albums narrative focuses on environmental concerns; the destruction of our ocean planet. It is a theme rarely explored with such acuity within the metal community.

The narrative, as crafted by lyricist and frontman Joe Duplantier (in the words of D.X. Ferris writing for Metal Sucks in 2009) “…relates an interplanetary quest to resurrect a dead planet. We’re talking life, death, and rebirth on a grand scale.”[1]

The story manages to traverse a conception of dawning awareness (to the mysteries of the universe and to the catastrophic destruction of our environment), anger, despair and hope. As a journey it is one shared by the musicians and the listener over the course of the record allowing it to avoid any accusations of being sermonising. In fact Gojira rarely have felt preachy, as with any form of art the content relates to concerns and experience of the creators, and as such the quartet are well qualified to relay this powerful message.

As we enter 2016 we stand on a pinnacle. Increasingly extreme weather as a result of climate change is becoming a norm. Environmental disaster seems inevitable as we fail to adapt consumerist and unsustainable lifestyles and economic systems, with scientists warning that some marine food chains are on the verge of collapse[2] (the ocean is enlisted as a powerful metaphor by Gojira). Throughout From Mars to Sirius despair is counterbalanced by optimism, perhaps for us in 2016 this optimism resides form of the recent Paris climate deal agreed in the bands home country.

It is now that Gojira’s message seems even more poignant.


In contrast to the steady pace of the albums opener, Backbone explodes into being. “Indestructible” declares Joe Duplantier, as the track jerks back and forth.

From time to time the pace is forced to a halt before the listener is thrown into some otherworldly depths, as drummer Mario Duplantier offers punishing assault of kick pedal as the track lurches between powerful attacks on drums and abrasive, screeched / muted guitar from brother Joe and fellow guitarist Christian Andreu, before returning above ground and to Joe’s powerful declaration.
When interviewed for Dutch site Fourteeng Joe Duplantier elaborated on the lyrical background of Backbone: “…the lyrics are about I feel indestructible. I believe that! When you believe in life after death, life after life…you feel indestructible.”[3]

For those wanting their fix of easily consumed, crushingly heavy tracks, the duo of Backbone and successor From the Sky offer these up.

Double bass provides the backdrop for much of the duration of From the Sky, in part providing an almost drone-like and ethereal quality to the track. The lyrical content here appears to hint to the creation of the universe, non-dual in nature as alluded to in traces of the bands philosophy. Bouts of intense emotion and wonder, track against monumental slabs of sound.


The placidity and Zen-like qualities of instrumental interlude Unicorn enable a moment of contemplation and time to recollect after the intensity of what proceeded. Moments like these were used to effect on previous album The Link (2003) with tracks like Connected and Torii, the band clearly aware of the need for replenishment when faced with such monumental music. The whales reappear, no longer a powerful and threatening presence, but vulnerable and majestic.

Where Dragons Dwell continues the relative peace with contemplation and introspection, again highlighting a further element of harmonised dichotomies present, of the inner and outer worlds. The ability to meld such introspective moments into these pieces is another reason the band are able to create such emotive compositions. Throughout the albums calmer moments Jean-Michel Labadie’s paced and extended base notes create an almost placid underlying calm.

One of the techniques used to great effect, is the alternation of focus upon either drumming or guitar. This allows the group to speed up or slow down the pace of the music, creating build before unleashing powerful  and protracted flurries.

In The Heaviest Matter Of The Universe, rather than creating the illusion of unstable seas, the opposing forces act to facilitate the stretching and bending of space time. The themes of the cosmic appear in much of Gojira’s music (a particular favourite of is Space Time from Terra Incognita (2001)). The opposition that they use can be seen to relate back to the philosophy which threads throughout the record, one that acknowledges the more recognisable vastness of space, to point toward the infinite here on earth.

What is notable on From Mars to Sirius however is the skill in which the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial are weaved together in a single narrative, rather than finding them stood in stark opposition as it at times felt on previous releases. A literary analogy would perhaps be Ouroborus, a character who makes an appearance on successor The Way of All Flesh (2008).


The whales return once more for what is perhaps the masterpiece and central focus of the entire album, Flying Whales. Without urgency the first 2 ½ minutes of the almost 8 minute track, rests comfortably as guitars and drums form a rhythmic tranquillity interspersed with the language of whales. The conversation intertwines with itself, causing ephemeral wisps to dissipate around the listener. As before a dialogue seems to be uniquely bridged, you feel as both observer and yet bought into the entire affair.

This is broken by one of the most memorable riffs of the record. As the narrative progresses we are drawn to seek these majestic creatures:

“Now I can see the whales
Looming out of the dark
Like arrows in the sky
I can’t believe my eyes
But it’s true”

Crushing riffs and double bass rage in jolting abruptness. The musicality is always timed and measured, precise in its technicality and structure. Skies appear to open up in the tranquil breathing space offered toward the end of the track before returning to claustrophobia with an aggressive closure.


In The Wilderness is a top heavy juggernaut, exchanging the majesty and precision of Flying Whales with primal rage. The world is alive and riled from its slumber by some angered ancient force.

“Living respectful
Low your axe
And learn from the trees.”

Structured shifts in the dynamic of the song provide it with a continuing renewal, demanding the attention of the listener. Closing in on the end, feedback and distortion begins to build before being engulfed by a powerful emotive riff (perhaps the most emotive moment on the album). With repetition the sound gains momentum, feeding back into itself and providing a self-sustaining power as it advances to its eventual closure. In the background distortion seems to mutate into muffled screams of anguish. One suspects of the forests, the mountains and the rivers, their voices on the wind for those attentive.

The inevitable implosion of In The Wilderness seems to ring in the end of one world and the beginning of another, if only in a fleeting, dreamed moment.


That dreamed moment is transcribed in World To Come which offers a glimmer of optimism. A vision of an ideal world healed of the scars left by humanity which appears nowhere to be seen; a living universe, vibrant and aware of itself.


It is here that we realise that our former journey has been one of self-transformation. Only now does the real journey begin. From Mars relates this, and in doing so offers a further temporary moment of peace whilst acting as a preface for To Sirius.

Screeched guitars flicker between monitors as Duplantier’s growls backdrop the euphoric feelings of ascension which are induced in To Sirius. The final declaration of the album rings out in the closing moments of the track; “This is my way”.


The conceptual journey closes with To Sirius. Closer Global Warming summarises and consolidates what has come before and returns us to the now, this world. Controlled reverb leads into technically pristine and emotive tapped core of the song.

The song is carefully considered, heavy though never reaching the intensity of Backbone or the anguish of In The Wilderness.

Global Warming closes the album by solidifying Gojira’s vision of a better world, conceived of and sculpted throughout the course of the album, through oceans, skies, space and time. Though at times the outlook appears bleak we end on a positive, if only a potential, a seed in germination.

“We will see our children growing”.


The structured nature of the albums compositions makes sure that the sound never strays to close to falling into chaos or sheer aggression. What it does achieve is a hypnotic and immersive experience, with plenty of to and fro dialogue, tumbling beneath waves and soaring through sky and space. It’s a unique experience; one which I feel was never quite captured on succeeding releases, though by admission it was never the intention to recreate the conceptual nature of From Mars To Sirius.

For example for 2012s L’Enfant Sauvage Joe is recorded; “I wanted to paint chaos, you know? It’s like a painting of chaos. It’s a deep feeling that humanity is destroying everything, and it’s total nonsense. A lot of things don’t make sense in this world, and I wanted to express this without really thinking if there’s a solution or proposing what I think about it.”[4]

The conceptual, narrative nature of From Mars To Sirius however is one of its most successful qualities. On L’Enfant Sauvage as with The Way of All Flesh, whilst raw emotive power is present, it at times feels as though the nuance and beauty projected so vividly on From Mars To Sirius is on occasion missing; lacking a vehicle for expression of their message.


As we await the anticipated release of new material in 2016, one wonders whether Gojira’s revised view will bring us a message of optimism or despair. The jury is out.


Notes

The band often share information regarding environmental activism which they are involved in or support, which can be found on their website here.

Listenable Records have just reissued the album on vinyl and have created a limited edition anniversary boxset available on their website.




[1] http://www.metalsucks.net/2009/06/24/9-gojira-from-mars-to-sirius/
[2] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/13/marine-food-chains-at-risk-of-collapse-extensive-study-of-worlds-oceans-reveals
[3] http://www.fourteeng.net/interviews/gojira.html
[4] http://www.artistdirect.com/entertainment-news/article/gojira-talks-l-enfant-sauvage-and-look-back-on-from-mars-to-sirius/10254161#wgW3Uu4CUHHgAJ1G.99