The 50 best albums of 2021
It’s here: the Kerrang! verdict on the 50 albums that shaped 2021…
A memory has stuck in Joe Duplantier’s mind since childhood. Sitting in front of the flickering screen of his family TV, a voice of reason reaches out from the static, underlining the urgency of a situation about which so many others seem blissfully unaware. French-Canadian astrophysicist Hubert Reeves remains best-known for his work on nucleosynthesis, but on this fateful evening he stressed that humanity’s self-destruction was less likely to come about in the fires of atomic fury than through the cold, quiet slide of complacency.
“He was saying that we needed to change our ways right now,” the Gojira frontman remembers, with startling lucidity. “We needed to reduce emissions. We needed to recycle. We needed to pay attention, or in 50 years we were going to be screwed. I remember thinking, ‘Good, a guy on TV is saying it, so things are gonna change...’”
Over three decades later, depressingly little has.
Joe is back in that same childhood hometown of Ondres, near Bayonne and Biarritz in south-west France. Having travelled from his current residence in Brooklyn, New York as lockdown descended in order to see his father through a spell of ill-health, he and his family made the decision to stay for the year. Speaking to us with his hoodie pulled up from an attic space littered with prototype guitars in various states of disassembly – to be auctioned at a future point for an “honourable cause” – it is evident that he has spent his sojourn in deep reflection.
“A few years ago, I began to become pessimistic about the future of humanity,” Joe confesses. “Even though there is an awakening and many people are trying to better themselves, I feel like we’re going backwards. When you see the [now-former] American president on TV saying, ‘I don’t know if global warming is real!’ or I hear from my friend who teaches in high school that some of his students aren’t quite sure whether Hitler was a character in a movie or someone who really existed, it can feel incredibly discouraging. I’m a little bit drained, a little bit worn out.”
He flashes a wry, handsome smile.
“So when the pandemic happened, I was like, ‘Fine. Let it burn. Maybe it’s just the end for us – the parasite that humanity is.’”
After months of fluff-talk from individuals struggling not to spiral into hopelessness, from politicians desperate to mask their own ineptitude, and from bands hoping to offer their fans distraction, conciliation or escape from a world going to shit, it is refreshing to come up against a brilliant mind speaking harsh truths.
Since he was that wide-eyed boy in front of the TV, though, Joe has grown used to people’s ignorance towards numbers that should speak for themselves: 750 billion tons of ice melting into the sea per year; 2,300 square-kilometres of rainforest felled each week; up to 150 species of lifeform extinguished every single day. Why should we believe the current data-dump – 2.34 million dead and countless more falling into poverty and depression – will be processed differently? We keep hearing about light at the end of the tunnel, but the truth is that as the COVID-19 crisis tips over the one-year mark, humanity is facing into a great, grey unknown.
There couldn’t be a better time, then, for the emergence of Gojira’s seventh album Fortitude: a record that, at its heart, demands the same courageous strength of mind to face hardship head-on that Dr. Reeves was calling for all those years ago.
“Fortitude is what we need to display,” Joe nods, allowing a glimmer of hope to lighten his grave tone. “It’s what we need to embrace. It’s what we need to be in a world where everything is uncertain – even the near future. Since the beginning of our band, we have promoted compassion versus competition and love versus hate. The point of Fortitude is to inspire people to be the best version of themselves and to be strong no matter what.
“We have this incredible power that we totally ignore, and though it sucks to wake up in the morning and be caught up in the grind of life, there are all these moments where we can make a difference by our attitude; by our [perception]; by how we envision our own future and the future of humanity. It’s easy to despair and to lose faith. But at some point you’ve got to figure out where you stand.
“You’ve got to ask what your attitude will be if this is the end of the world as we know it.”
Literally and figuratively, this reckoning has been a long time coming. Fans’ first substantive tease of Fortitude came with the release of mesmeric single Another World on August 5 last year, as its quest for ‘another world, another place to be’ resonated with a planet already months into lockdown. Joe explains, however, that the timing was a quirk of coincidence, with even the line ‘The virus is spreading’ in Maxime Tiberghien and Sylvain Favre’s extraordinary animated video having been finalised long before COVID ever crossed its creators’ minds.
“It wasn’t a COVID album until it became a COVID album,” the singer shrugs, revealing that the record was in final mixing before he travelled back to France. “It’s crazy, almost as if we were influenced by a sort of global electricity in the air.”
Flash back three years to early 2018, when production began in earnest.
2016’s sixth LP Magma had galvanised Gojira’s reputation for progressive death metal efficiency with accessible high sheen. 2017 GRAMMY nominations for Best Rock Album and Best Metal Performance duly followed. An opening slot on Metallica’s WorldWired tour later the same year capped an outstanding cycle. The platform was set for Joe and his bandmates – drummer (and brother) Mario, lead guitarist Christian Andreu and bassist Jean-Michel Ladabie – to take the next step on their own unbending terms.
Rather than any stiff blueprint, a loose collection of priorities were laid out.
Having been completed in the immediate wake of the death of the Duplantier brothers’ mother Patricia Rosa, Magma was a record painted in deep greys of grief and melancholy that sat uncomfortably close to home. Album seven needed to be brighter and more extroverted. Where tracks like the coarsely bluesy Yellow Stone and desolate closer Liberation had toyed with new musical motifs, too, there needed to be even greater “freedom” in the exploration and expansion of their incisive signature sound.
“There are no rules!” Joe declared during an interview with MusicRadar to promote his Charvel signature model guitar last September, citing radical English alt.rockers Portishead and Radiohead as inspirational in their unfettered deployment of unexpected sounds. This evening he suggests a reappraisal of traditional rock, blues and Americana – childhood influences reawakened by deep conversations with Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds – as being equally impactful.
“For me, it was always about being dissonant and weird and aggressive,” he reflects. “I feel like there was a musical energy I looked down on for a long time – rock, blues, progressive – but the older the other guys and I get, the more we appreciate it.”
Ten years spent in the United States have doubtless also left their inflections (“It’s affected my pronunciation, for sure!” the dual-national half-jests), but the flow of work through his Silver Cord studios has kept things interesting, with bands as varied as Long Island mathcore maniacs Car Bomb, Parisian metalcore upstarts Rise Of The North Star and Massachusetts hip-hop-rockers Highly Suspect tearing through.
Joe identifies his guest spot on the latter’s bonkers 2019 track SOS as a particular eye-opener: “It showed me that it’s okay to be sensitive or ‘whiny’. Initially, I felt kind of ashamed of it, then I played it to my wife and she was like, ‘Ooooh, sexy…’ It’s always good to be open to new experiences.”
With the trust of legendary label Roadrunner Records in Gojira’s “independence and experience”, Silver Cord would become the “cocoon” for a two-year creative odyssey. Backed every step of the way by in-house engineer Johann Meyer (who also handles their live sound) and with the comfort of being able to demo and record in the same space, more arrangements were experimented with and songs written than ever before (“I’m even playing solos,” Joe gushes. “Two of the songs that got kicked out had killer solos on them and I was like ‘Fuuuck!’”). Adding a final spark legendary producer Andy Wallace – a veteran of Slayer’s Reign In Blood, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish… – was brought in to complete the mix.
It sounds like a cushy process, we nudge, for an album titled Fortitude. Joe laughs. “Ninety-five per cent of the time, you feel miserable. You’re trying to write the best song of all time, and it never happens. We’re facing our demons. We’re facing our ego. We’re facing our disappointments and self-disappointments. That period in life where you choose to make an album is a window where you have to give your very best. A lot of the time it’s painful, but when you find that right combination of riffs, or those good lyrics, it can be so rewarding.”
An initial surprise release date was set for June 2020. With the uncertainty of lockdown, that was pushed to September. As it became clear that a return to the stage was not imminent, a further postponement was made. The traditional mindset of touring as a prerequisite for the release schedule took some time to break free from. Eventually, though, the energy and urgency could no longer be contained.
“Now we’re able to see things differently,” Joe stresses. “Touring or not, we’re going to drop it no matter what.”
Truly, Fortitude is a record that demands to be set free. Pulsating with all the deliverance and colour Joe targeted, the finished article also glows with luminescent power and affirmative warmth. The surgical sheen of Gojira’s trademark technicality and heaviosity – those trademark mangled time signatures and juddering syncopations – are still at the foundation of everything they do, but individual songs feel more open and evolved, occasionally even riding their propulsive energy towards the widescreen spaces of post-metal and stadium-rock. Crucially, in the grand tradition of Flying Whales’ fathomless grooves and the icy numbness of Born In Winter, there is a stirring communion of music and meaning as the broader Fortitude concept is unpicked to its thematic strands: life and death, nature and spirituality.
Exploring the nature of mortality with classic French existentialist verve (‘The primal fear of disappearing / Becoming a ghost in the void…’), opening track and new single Born For One Thing feels like the perfect way in. Subject matter that seemed to have been covered exhaustively on 2008’s The Way Of All Flesh is progressed and elevated with a vibrancy every bit the match of its shapeshifting music video – shot in Brussels’ magnificent Royal Museum For Central Africa.
“We are all going to die, so we need to learn in this life how to let go,” Joe says with disarming bluntness. “Death is a big thing – as much a part of life as birth – but it’s taboo. We need to come to peace with ideas of death and decay [as we are] with how night becomes day. If we are at peace with the idea that our body will cease functioning one day, it can help us to be more generous and compassionate and [not hold onto what we don’t need]. The Buddhists say that if you own more than seven things you start suffering. I think there’s something in that.”
Strikingly, the theme of “the grind” pervades through multiple tracks. An early ‘I’ve been grinding and grinding…’ lament is inverted and paid off by gargantuan closer Grind’s instruction to ‘surrender to the grind’. The ostensibly paradoxical lyrical contrast, Joe explains, is another reminder not to put things off and bury heads in the sand. “You need to surrender to your condition as a human being. There’s a form of freedom to be found in discipline. If you do your dishes before you go to bed every night, they won’t be there in the morning.”
Elsewhere, there is a sense of globe-trotting adventure. Amazonia throbs with the tropical bombast of Sepultura’s Roots, harking back to Joe’s late-2000s stint as bassist in Cavalera Conspiracy. “It’s very clearly a tribute, nothing more!” the frontman laughs self-effacingly, though that potent environmental message against deforestation (‘This fire in the sky… The greatest miracle is burnings to the ground’) is pure Gojira. Sphinx pays tribute to the infamous Egyptian colossus with one of the band’s greatest-ever riffs: heavy as hewn limestone and boasting a savagery that would do tech-death legends Nile proud. There is even a pronounced British influence, as the astonishing Hold On deliberately unfurls with the epic progressive six-string tendencies of latter-day Iron Maiden.
Inescapable hooks and hidden depths are everywhere. The epic New Found welds vertiginous passages of airy expanse to bowel-lurching breakdowns. Head-spinning percussive masterclass Into The Storm tears through like a tornado making landfall. Haunting penultimate track The Trails beguiles with the eerie, whispered mystique of peak Deftones.
Musically and conceptually, however, the clear centrepiece is The Chant. Alongside the interstitial, instrumental title-track, its combination of chain-gang blues, bayou gospel, bar-room Americana and simple lyrics encouraging listeners to ‘Get ahold of yourself, rise above… Get strong!’ feels quite unlike anything Gojira have done before. As Joe highlights, it is also the ultimate distillation of the Fortitude concept, and a promise to fans of some unforgettable nights when the show is back on the road.
“Usually we write songs to destroy the crowd,” he grins. “This was an attempt at something to bring them together.”
Looking to that future, it’s hard not to be transported to the triumphs of the recent past. For British fans, August 11, 2018 still echoes. Gojira’s Bloodstock Open Air headline show was a landmark not just for the 20,000 rain-drenched punters (and good number of inflatable killer whales) pounded into the Derbyshire mud, but also for the band who had ground their way from breakthrough UK shows all the way back in 2006 to a first-ever festival headline. The thrill of having Cannibal Corpse – a band he had grown up with – opening for them had Joe pinching himself. More than that, the experience whetted an appetite for more spectacular nights to come.
Having signed off on Fortitude almost a year ago, that hunger has only grown. In plotting a way forward, though, while Joe is full of hope, he is hesitant to hyperbolise. “A musician’s life is not always easy,” he reckons. “We’re at the point in our career where we’re able to do this without having to get a job on the side – which is incredible – but we’re far from being rich. We’re not rock stars with big homes and huge bank accounts. Right now, I don’t even own a house.”
At a point, does the lure of grander stages and more substantial fees begin to steer artistic purpose?
“Yes and no,” comes the answer. “You never really know 100 per cent in life why you do things. Who am I to say what’s going on within the head and the heart. When you write the song, of course you hope that it’s going to sell. But, also, we are artists, we are people, we are philosophers, and we think a lot. I like to think that I will really truly never have to make one compromise on one word that I write, and that every musical idea can come straight from the heart. That is our compass. Music needs to feel alive. It needs to resonate. Even if someone tells us a song will sell a million copies, if it doesn’t have that wow factor for us, it’s trash.”
Ruminating further on those themes of lifecycle and legacy, we wonder where Gojira see themselves as part of the broader metal family 24 years in, and nearly 16 since breakthrough third album From Mars To Sirius. Ethically and instrumentally, a new generation of outfits have picked up their ideas and run with them. Is there a race to remain on the cutting edge?
Joe pauses a moment, contemplating the idea of Gojira as elder-statesmen.
“Life is short and it goes by quickly so we may as well concentrate on what we have,” he answers. “I don’t worry too much about bands that go faster than us, or look cooler. We try to be relevant, but we are confident that our artistic taste is impeccable. Musically and visually, we have our own world. We have worked for a long time on the integrity of this realm – this art and this entity that we are developing. We are confident that it has worth. It’s like we found a mine and we’re still digging and digging at it. We definitely have fuel for a few more records. Our vision is not fulfilled completely yet.”
For now, he gestures, it is just about forging into the future and cherishing each victory as it comes. Each “wonderful moment” with family that would have previously been sacrificed at the altar of the band deserves celebration. Delivering this album to a growing legion of fans who have waited too long to hear it will be a milestone. And, as Gojira return to the limelight, the righteous fire in his belly will inevitably begin to burn again.
“I consider myself an activist,” Joe concludes as we bid au revoir. “It’s a state of being. Each time I can touch someone with a sentence or an idea, each time I agree with someone that something will be good to do, each time that a worthy project sees the light of day, it activates me. I have this safety net inside me that I’ll never give up, never give in, never despair. I see the beauty of humanity through music and thinking, togetherness and community. We have this power inside us that is so tremendous. I believe in these things, and I will never stop fighting for them – through songs, through conversations, through interviews, through art.”
A band to believe in, to the bitter end.
Fortitude is released on April 30 via Roadrunner Records – pre-order / pre-save your copy here.
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