I’m Listening to Death Metal #4: Gojira’s “L’Enfant Sauvage”
I’ve spent the last seven years, off and on, attempting to put into words what precisely I see in death metal and why it means so much to me. This column is my latest and so far best attempt to enunciate the value of death metal to me, artistically, aesthetically, and emotionally. The following are a set of guided stories loosely centered on certain records and the various relations to them, both inside and outside myself and the records themselves.
It’s strange as time passes how the major events of our lives eventually take the back seat for smaller things. We see this often in love, where the enormous moments of our weddings and first kisses and first times having sex often get swallowed up by the way your partner's hair looks with 4 p.m. light streaming through the passenger seat in traffic, or the way their voice cracks singing old songs in the shower reverberating through the cheap wooden door of your first apartment together, or the way they can never make that dish right no matter how often they try it. We see this also in grief, where the precise moment of their death often stings us less than the image of them withered and sick, or the fear and trembling on the faces of the rest of our family and friends, or the uncomfortable comment made by a callous friend of the family who didn’t understand what we needed to hear.
And so it is, too, when telling about the shapes of our lives.
The major events of my life (my abuse, my suicide attempt, my struggles with substances and mental health) are all pillars of the temple of my life, necessary facts to set straight before telling any other story. But just like any other survivor of any other kind of trauma, whether inflicted by myself or by others, these are not the only matters of my life that I wish to be known by. It is true that there were times in my life when they so greatly eclipsed all other aspects of my days that I was rendered blind in their darkness; but, just as in blindness, the fact that I could not perceive easily the shape and substance of things around me did not mean that those things or those experiences were not there. There are a million tiny pieces there buried in the great flesh of those blighted years, and as time moves on and the acuteness of my suffering fades into the comfort of the end of my youth, those shrapnel experiences show themselves more fully to me.
It is by this same token that, eventually, details come to matter more than plots. Plots, after a time and volume, begin to look the same, hewing and cleaving to the same rough contours of motion and being, while details seems to shift and glimmer unpredictably on their surface. It is precisely the regularity of plots by which they are defined, in which they become legible to us; repeated motifs dotting time and space, divorces and marriages and traumas and euphorias all occurring more or less the same no matter where or when or to what they occur. But it is also this regularity that leads eventually to their plainness, while the irregularity of tiny details -- which before seemed to swarm and suffocate the tale but now feel like the base matter which comprises it -- compels us so.
And so, storytelling becomes akin to architecture in this phase. No one finds it noteworthy that a house has walls or floors or ceilings: these are so requisite that we only note their absence and never their presence. They are not the purpose of a home; instead, they are the containing shell, while the empty space within is filled with specificity, objects, people, memories, and time that are grounded particularly in this house at this place in this time. This is why we do not recall our childhood home and all of its memories, beautiful and ugly, when we enter any given home. The general forms of the plot become the brute architecture within which the style and fine filigree details (that are the reason we tell a story) call their home. Or, for a simpler metaphor: plots are the notion that this is a painting of a shipwreck while the details are which ship, which emotions we conjure, how dark or bright the clouds and the sea and the sky, whether the earth and heavens and oceans be rendered passive in this suffering or an active participant either in violence or salvation.
Gojira is, by now, a legendary band. Four of their six studio albums are considered mandatory purchases for any fan of contemporary heavy music, and one of them, 2005’s From Mars To Sirius, is a flawless record. Once upon a time, they were one of the bands that rode a fine line between being a groove metal band and being a prog metal band, each taken as appellations to the death metal which was the body of their sound. Those were days when prog metal exclusively referred to Dream Theater clones and the technical traditional heavy metal of groups like Queensryche and Fates Warning. Thankfully, we now live in times where the word is less reviled and the long-standing notion of the cultural war between prog and punk seems largely settled by the notion that each are more independent spiritual impulses that don’t directly contradict one another. It’s worth remembering that, in their early days, people were wary of referring even to a group like Mastodon as a prog band, preferring instead to call them sludge metal or, even more laughably, grindcore.
Granted, the difficulty in calling Gojira a prog death band, at least early on, had some merit to it. They were, of course, always a tremendously technically gifted group of musicians, but their first four demos, released under the original band name of Godzilla, show a substantially more death metal-oriented sound. It is a credit to the long-lasting songwriting talent of the band that those demos are not merely interesting to the collector or completionist but instead contain a number of worthwhile brutal, technically-rich death metal songs that would never see their parts repurposed for studio material down the line. Their Morbid Angel influence has never been more present than on those early demos, which also contain more than a touch of the twisted Satanic atonal melodicism of groups like Incantation, the evil and sternly paced tech/prog death of Immolation, and the slithering and bestial obscured technicality of Cannibal Corpse. These initial demos also saw their profile rise quite quickly within the broader metal world. Their last tour under their original name saw them as opener for Cannibal Corpse, Edge of Sanity, Impaled Nazarene, and Immortal in what, in retrospect, is one of the greatest package tours in extreme metal history -- a death metal version of Led Zeppelin taking Judas Priest out, or later Judas Priest circa Screaming for Vengeance taking Iron Maiden circa The Number of the Beast.
Gojira's debut album Terra Incognita is a remarkably strong record from the young group. Despite the goofy track titles, which hadn’t yet conformed to the eco-majesty the group would later so comfortably evoke, the music within is both definitively Gojira and also fine technical/progressive death metal. Their idea of technicality was always somewhere closer to Morbid Angel and Gorguts’ esoteric chord voicings and use of extended techniques than to Necrophagist or Cryptopsy, and often became prog death, pushing riffs into odd times by nature or allowing the structure of a song to be a bit more breathy than a standard verse-chorus pattern. They’re one of the best examples to point to whenever anyone gives you guff that being a prog band means making 20-minute songs and meandering, hookless messes of performance; anyone who likes extreme metal and isn’t moved by Gojira is either deaf or lying to you.
But ultimately, despite the surprising strength their debut contained, it didn’t quite break through. That wouldn’t come for a while.
Likewise, their second record The Link struggled to connect with a wide audience. It showed the band grow in popularity, certainly, and was the record that eventually helped them impress Prosthetic records for the second phase of their career, but overall the shift to more Pantera-inspired groove metal sections didn’t further their sound enough to really make it all make sense to a wider listening public. At least not yet, anyway; it was this addition of a focus on groove that would become the new backbone of the bands sound from The Link onward, to which their progressive, technical, and sometimes direct and anthemic metal writing would be alloyed. It was this easily identifiable, hummable core that allowed their music to so vastly transcend the boundaries of extreme metal to eventually be consistent Grammy nominees, a sentence that never gets less surreal to say about a technical death metal band.
I’d heard of the band, obviously, being 16 and neck-deep in forums about records and freshly equipped with Soulseek, the greatest P2P downloading network of all time. Word of mouth was strong, so I picked up what was then their newest record and Prosthetic Records debut From Mars To Sirius based on word of mouth alone, along with The Link.
(I tended then, in a manner I still mostly follow, to try to get at least one additional record of a group I was interested in to help situate in my head better what it was they were aiming for as a band. It’s easy to hear one or two songs by a band and believe you have a solid idea of what they are aiming for with their material, only to find later in the contexts of albums and discographies that it may have been a lark or an experiment or a coalescing of an element that had once but much more sparing. Being a fan of prog rock will make you build this habit instinctively; often, the aim of bands isn’t fully revealed on one track or even one album, no matter how long-winded or kaleidoscopic it may be, and the quiet sense of humor in the goofier moments as well as the more anthemic pop-influenced moments may not be immediately legible as such if you take everything at face value and first blush alone.)
The Link I could take or leave. But with From Mars To Sirius, I was in love.
And yet, I was not in love immediately. The record was too dense even for my prog-hardened, 16-year-old ears, which had conquered Yes double-albums and triple-LP live albums, memorized every instrumental part of every track by Tool, and had been getting increasingly into the succulent morsel that is Gentle Giant. I liked the moments that were legible to me, but everything seemed too much, a crushing wall of sound that made parts and structures impossible to decode. My practice of always listening through a record to completion at least for the first time I put it on put a mark on it; there were enough moments that I knew spending time to unlock the record would be worthwhile. And again, given my background in prog, it would not be the first time that I had faith the fifth or tenth listen to a record would finally open up what the first had not.
I began the process of carting the record everywhere and showing it to absolutely everyone. I listened to it in my walkman on the bus ride to school, in classes, at lunch, and on the way home. I brought it to friends’ houses and put it on their stereos, muting the TV of whatever game we were playing to get them to check this wild shit out. A keen memory I have is of being at one of my childhood friend’s houses: we had had a falling out not long prior, we both had dabbled with drugs and alcohol in that adolescent way, self-destruction to cope with the brutality and powerlessness of childhood that we often culturally ignore. And while I put down those things in disgust and anger, seeing too much stupid violence in too short a time to feel comfortable remaining in the ugliness of the world, he did not follow, and felt it a threat that me and our other very close friend did not feel comfortable with the time he spent with rather unsavory types. And so, in love, we parted ways, faithful that we would be bound to reunite even if only to confirm our friendship was well and truly a childhood one only. It was in one of these later meetings that we conferred in his basement, which in our childhood had been unfinished but (with his father cheating on his mom, him flunking out of high school, and a general desire to move on) had been finished with an aim to sell the house.
As a result, there was a new wall where once a bare support beam had been, on which hung the TV connected to the Xbox we’d spent dozens if not hundreds of hours huddled around as kids. We needed music to talk to, so I put on the Gojira record.
We both cried on the couch as it pummeled us. I could not place my finger on it, precisely; I still had a hard time following the twisting contours of the riffing… a difficult time being able to listen through the production to pick up all of the parts as they were occuring. But something emotionally clicked. The savagery of Joe Duplantier’s roar gave way to sorrow, like he was crying in grief. It resonated with me that this wasn’t an album of brutality and triumph but of despair at the stupidity of man sacrificing the beauty of the planet. This notion, the way we mindlessly sacrifice the simple and small beauty of the world and Being for things that don’t even come to fruition, struck me in the heart. It would be years before that friend and I reconnected again, but it was a fond memory we both hung our hats on.
I could go on endlessly about how perfect that record is, perfect, literally and absolutely perfect, just like any agreeing metalhead could. It’s a canonical record not just in death metal or prog but in the broader heavy music umbrella, and now, over a decade on, it has become one of the records we slide across the table to someone maligning the heavier end of music. Praise for that record is better saved for pieces devoted solely to it, a record that is to contemporary extreme music what Carcass’ perfect Heartwork was ten years prior.
But the specific image I wanted to convey here was not one tied to From Mars To Sirius or to its follow-up The Way of All Flesh (which at the time of its release I foolishly overlooked); instead, it is of the next record, their major label debut for Warner Brothers, L’Enfant Sauvage.
I have mentioned in previous columns my struggles with mental health, both neurochemical and ones caused by PTSD from years of abuse. I will reiterate that the lesson to be learned from this suffering is not solely the mindfulness of how we exert fragmented images of that past suffering into the often-undeserving present, punishing those who are not guilty for things that were done to us, but also of the ultimately banality of this suffering. The more I speak about my suffering, the more people message me back with stories of their own, the more I become sensitive in day-to-day moments of people reflecting the slight glimmering sliver of some deep wound that happened a long time ago. I am not uniquely put-upon in my suffering; it is a condition of the world we are best to attune ourselves to with compassion rather than attempt to deny or shut away for peace of mind.
(A relevant tangent: it is by making things banal that we make the formerly-inaccessible understandable. Something like philosophy, which as a field is viewed often as dead white men grandiloquently puffing air up their own asses, is best understood as the honest thoughts of people grappling with specific thoughts that hounded them and made them unable to rest, or else sometimes was just their idea of fun. Not everyone likes that kind of discursive mode of thinking out loud to work through the complexities and angles of a thought, but all this means is that philosophy isn’t going to be the mode of accessing and discussing those thoughts for them. It is not unlike young adult literature or certain cartoons in that way; the fact that they are modally not the ideal way of conveying certain thoughts or feelings to some people does not deny or undercut the fact that they are precisely the right method for others. And while we sometimes get caught up in the thought-image of things, Steven Universe as this perfect beacon of hopeful wholesomeness or Emil Cioran as the ideal mouthpiece for the inherent sorrow and pain of embodiment, they are best communicated to others in the simplest core terms; that they are ways of thinking of things, and some people click better with some ways than with others.)
In the interest of making the suffering of mental illness more mundane, I’ll disclose that the least sexy and most infuriating part of grappling with it comes from the healthcare industry. My own mental barriers to wellness, from outright suicidality to the more subtle self-destructive coping methods, are in comparison wild and ecstatic fireworks when placed next to the drudgery of arguing on the phone for my insurance company to agree to release the meds which I’d taken month-in-month-out for over a year. Hitting gaps in coverage became the norm for me for years. My first medication for depression, citalopram, worked fantastically albeit at a necessary maximum dosage to crack the think barrier of my depression, before eventually shifting me into consistent manic fits, where I would lose time, act erratically and generally became unliveable for others.
So it was that I set out on the journey of trying different medications that would both treat my depression. The first such medication, Cymbalta, made my suicidality significantly worse, which in turn led to my darkest period after my suicide attempt and also led to a vast increase in my alcoholism, self-isolation, and klonopin abuse. It also accompanied a shift in my weight, first dropping me down to scant 120 pounds on my five-foot-ten frame before skyrocking me up about 60 pounds in under a year. It was decided that I would no continue this line of treatment. It did not take long for me to test out meds and find a comfortable fit with a medication called Viibryd, which still sounds more like an erectile dysfunction medication name to me than an antidepressant. Brief meeting with my doctor confirmed that my depression was still at a severity that required a maximum dosage.
The medication worked wonderfully for me for a number of years, encompassing fully the period of this story. I would only eventually go off it for the frustrating reason that it cost $250 per month and was of a class that my insurance did not cover, coming entirely out of pocket. It would often drive me to overdrafting my account, but given that these were the often the only tether holding me not only to sanity but also a life without suicide attempts, severe alcoholism, drug abuse, and other risky behavior (something I still dabbled in even with the meds), it was a cost I would stomach, foregoing consistent access to food or gas for my car or clean clothes or the like. The things we do for survival are small, ugly, and without drama. If the shape of my life were solely marked by the dramatic suicide attempts and glories then these smaller, more painful sufferings would go unmarked; that seems unfair given the weight and shape the conflicting issues of poverty and the cost of healthcare pressed upon me.
My insurance company would still insist on approving the medication I received even though they had no intention of paying for it regardless. What this meant was that, nearly but not every month, I would receive a notice from my pharmacy that the insurance company had placed a hold on my prescription, requiring a note be sent to them by my doctor confirming it was necessary. This was a powerful drug, classed in the same manner as vicodin and the like despite, by nature of its formulation, being unable to be taken as a party drug. My doctor was not in his office on weekends or Mondays and would often come in late, leave early, and take a long lunch. In addition, the sign-off procedure required it be my doctor giving the "okay" for the medication and not any of the nurses on staff, despite them having had direct impact on my healthcare for my entire life as it’s the same doctor I’ve seen since I was one year old. This meant that if the notice came in on a Friday after my doctor left for the day, I wouldn’t have access to my life-saving and necessary antidepressants for three-and-a-half full days.
And this is exactly what happened the weekend the Gojira released the lead single from the record L’Enfant Sauvage, its title track. I have made a practice in the years since my initial suicide attempt to have a safe room somewhere everywhere I live, where there are no blades, no ropes, no chemicals; when the days are at their worst, I lock myself up and bring music or books with me and wait for the tidal forces of my mind to settle. A manner to imagine mental health is that the body is a planet and our psyche is like the weather and, like all weather, will change given enough time; like the weather too, it may damage the planet, but so long as you do not die, damage can be repaired. I had made my bedroom into a safe space, door locked and track blaring from my laptop at maximum volume all in an attempt to blast out the torturous forces that were compelling me. For those who have never gone through antidepressant withdrawal, which tends to happen within 30 to 48 hours after the last dose, there is something called paresthesia or “brain zaps” where it literally feels like someone has, like the Public Image Limited song “Rise” would put it, pressed a livewire to your head. This is what was happening to me as the track blasted on, each percussive beating of their C-standard tuned guitars punching another dissociative jolt into my brain. It was, technically, torture, deliberately hurting myself with the physical effects of withdrawal while I mentally battled to retain control of my hand and not hurt myself in some more ultimate and fatal manner.
But it was, again, the roar of Duplantier’s voice, which sang of wild life, the root and vine growing out untamed beyond its barriers. This sense of the overwhelming permanent strength of primal force, which in the absence of direct effort against it compels the body to life, made me weep in my bed. It was precisely the feral and euphoric violence of death metal, at this moment turned to its most pummeling and rhythmic, that allowed me to imagine myself a lion stalking myself, my body as some greater predator tracking and hunting my rotting mind which sought to kill the body and itself. The song felt, both lyrically and with the percussiveness of its musical composition, like it validated the precise nature both psychic and physical of my suffering. I clung to life, replaying the song over and over. Allowing myself, in that safe space, to become feral. And then, when my pills came in, I took my dosage and felt that evil fire extinguish within me.
Gojira are beloved because, like Ulcerate, they are one of the most emotionally legible death metal bands. This catches them flak sometimes from purists but is also the engine of their crossover success. Their songwriting and performance abilities are honed not only toward riffs but also to emotionally conveying the bleeding, wild heart. It creates an object that I not only felt I could have faith in, but produced a better and more functional image of my selfhood, one that would preserve me in times when my mind turned against me. My conscious mind was not some force controlling and entitled to my body necessarily; it was a symbiote working in conjunction with my body. And, in times when it might violate that pact unduly, I could choose therein to lose my mind, so long as I was caged up in some safe serengeti, able to devolve into something that might expel that vicious self-terminating force within me.
Such was my wild right. This too is the image I associate with Gojira: not their perfect album, which is perfect in all manners, but a head full of leaves and living vines, a hollow and blackened head, a head which is my head, in my bed, clutching my sheets as riffs induce paresthetic zaps with their roar, clutching to life.
Langdon Hickman is listening to death metal. Here are the prior installments of his column:
I'm Listening to Death Metal #1: Opeth
I'm Listening to Death Metal #2: Atheist
I'm Listening to Death Metal #3: Ulcerate
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