It has always been hard to put a tag on GOJIRA, one of France’s most extreme bands the country’s musical pallet has ever known. But then again, the band has never really sought out such a tag, instead letting the music do the talking, preferring introspection and intelligence over preconceived notions and preexisting tags. Ever since the 1996 formation in town of Bayonne in the southwest of France, GOJIRA has been an ever-evolving experiment in extreme metal ultimately built upon a worldly, ever-conscious outlook with roots firmly-planted both in the hippie movement and an environmentally-conscious, new age mentality. This time, with The Way of All Flesh, GOJIRA harnesses a spiritual consciousness as well, but still culminates in a sound wholly heavy.
Originally dubbed Godzilla, after the scaly, green film star with an equally huge reputation as the newfound band’s sound, the brothers Duplantier – guitarist/vocalist Joe and drummer Mario – and fellow Frenchmen Jean Michel Labadie on bass and Christian Andreu on guitar, quickly released several demos, ultimately changing the band’s name and independently releasing the first GOJIRA album, Terra Incognita, in 2001, offering up a brief glimpse into the giant GOJIRA would eventually become through persistent hard work and years of toiling in the metal underground.
After the 2003 release of the band’s follow-up, The Link, throughout Europe and the subsequent live DVD release the next year, of the aptly-titled The Link Alive, 2005 brought the release of From Mars To Sirius, the band’s breakthrough release, garnering high praise and a North American release through Prosthetic Records in 2006. Fans of not only heavy, extreme music took notice, but so did the intellectual world, thanks to Sirius’ thoughtful and expansive inner examination of the world at hand and the consequences of humanity’s struggle to coexist without harm. The metal world was amused and amazed: much of it hadn’t yet seen an equally intelligent and pummelingly heavy release that was as expansive and open as it was dense and concise.
Following the immense praise of From Mars To Sirius and recurring trips across the Atlantic for North American touring alongside the likes of Lamb of God, Children of Bodom, and Behemoth among others, GOJIRA established its stranglehold on the extreme metal spectrum with a linguist’s touch, a lyricist’s finesse, and a crushingly heavy live show that left audiences astounded, establishing the band’s live performance as a spot-on recreation of the band’s increasingly adept and intelligent studio output.
While 2007 wrapped with GOJIRA again touring North America on the Radio Rebellion Tour alongside Behemoth to the best reaction yet, the dawn of 2008 saw a nearly 10 month wait for while the band assembled The Way of All Flesh, one of the year’s most anticipated records. This time revolving around the undeniable dilemma of a mortal demise, GOJIRA’s soundtrack to the situation seems fitting. Shifting ever-so-slightly from the eco-friendly orchestra of impending doom on From Mars To Sirius to the band’s new message of the equally uncontrollable inevitability of death, The Way of All Flesh melds the open and airy progressive passages GOJIRA has become famous for with the sonically dense sounds and bludgeoningly heavy rhythms that makes the band an equally intelligent force as it is unmatchably heavy.
Featuring a guest vocal spot on “Adoration For None” from Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe – one of GOJIRA’s most vocal supporters from their first moment making an impression in the Americas – and the now familiar Morbid Angel-isms of The Way Of All Flesh’s title track join the angular riffing more akin to Meshuggah on “Esoteric Surgery” and the epic, artful plodding of the nearly 10-minute “The Art of Dying,” showing that GOJIRA have indeed opened a new bag of tricks for The Way Of All Flesh, while not abandoning the sound that first showed a massive promise of potential on Sirius.
“It’s more inventive than From Mars To Sirius and at the same time more straight to the point,” GOJIRA frontman Joe Duplantier says of The Way of All Flesh. “The whole album is about death, death is like a step on the path of the soul. The mystery surrounding this phenomenon is just so inspiring, and death is the most common thing on earth.”
“This album is also a ‘requiem’ for our planet,” Duplantier continues. “We don't want to be negative or cynical about the fate of humanity, but the situation on Earth is growing critical, and the way humans behave is so catastrophic that we really need to express our exasperation about it. It's not fear, but anger. But we still believe that consciousness can make a difference and that we can change things as human beings.”
Death is inevitable. Time is a precious, finite resource. Regret springs solely from our collective inability to square these two truths. A friend suddenly passes away and you’re left to think about all those times where you could have said how much you appreciate them and didn’t - because you figured there would always be a next time. A partnership collapses and you’re left to reflect on the moments you took for granted, the ways you could have been more present. A band lacks the foresight to predict that touring will cease to exist for two years and doesn’t leave it all on the stage that last night; or, think of the fan that doesn’t stick around for the encore because they wanted an extra half hour of sleep.
These concerns were not hypothetical for Mastodon. The core lineup has been in place for 21 years, an eternity in the highest echelons of metal, where even the most legendary band names eventually become brands staffed by a rotating cast of hired guns. And yet, Brann Dailor, Brent Hinds, Bill Kelliher, and Troy Sanders experienced enough individual and collective tragedy to threaten their adamantine bond - the death of their longtime friend and manager Nick John after battling pancreatic cancer, a devastating global pandemic that put their faith, families, and livelihoods in jeopardy. Mastodon’s decades of success and the brotherhood between its four members had not made them any more immune to the possibility that it could all splinter tomorrow. Mastodon had a glimpse of the end and committed to a new beginning - and Hushed And Grim does not take a single moment for granted.
And there are more of these moments than on any previous Mastodon release. It initially feels reductive to simply describe Hushed And Grim as Mastodon’s ninth album - at 88 minutes, their first double LP boldly defies conventional assumptions about attention spans in the streaming era. With the expanse of a studio film, the texture of a novel and the breadth of a Greatest Hits, Hushed And Grim is Mastodon paying tribute to John by building an eternal monument. “He’s always been an influence when he was alive,” Hinds wistfully states. “And he’s even more of an influence now.”
Consider why double albums are frequently called “monumental.” Mastodon is very much aware of what this format says about their legacy in heavy music. Dailor recalls his formative teenage years absorbing every note of world-building epics like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Physical Graffiti, and The Wall, milestone works from bands whose inspiration and craft have simultaneously reached a zenith. “It takes some balls to put out a double album these days or takes some ovaries,” Dailor quips. “I've been trying to say ovaries because I think it's more powerful.”
Mastodon fundamentally altered the course of 21st century metal on 2004’s classic Leviathan, and every album thereafter continued to shape the genre in their image. In 2018, five-time nominees Mastodon won their first GRAMMY®, with “Sultan’s Curse” earning Best Metal Performance. Arguably more impressive was Emperor of Sand being nominated for Best Rock Album, with lead single “Show Yourself” hitting the top five on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. Without sacrificing an iota of their intensity and intelligence, Mastodon’s imprint on pop culture has spread from Adult Swim to late night network television, from the History Channel’s Counting Cars to HBO’s Game of Thrones, from DC Comics Dark Knight Metal to Bill and Ted Face the Music.
But as Sanders points out, “the most solid representation of us is when we get in our cycle and craft a wholesome, dynamic and beautiful record from top to bottom. That's what we ultimately thrive on.” Hushed And Grim only emphasizes what the band’s many accomplishments has expressed to this point - Mastodon have transcended genre of any kind, animated by an unwillingness to compromise that results in their most expansive and accessible release yet. There are no interludes, no filler, none of the stereotypical bloat that accompanies even the most revered double albums. With the spirit of Nick John coursing throughout its entirety, “every song has a place in our hearts,” Kelliher stresses.
Throughout, Mastodon travel through time and space, through memory and imagination, drawing on their experience and formative influences to open new portals. On “Pushing the Tides,” they exist at the thrilling intersection of metal and post-hardcore, “The Beast”’s heaving Southern rock, replete with a countrified contribution from guitarist Marcus King, creates an alternate history of the Allman Brothers sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels with Black Sabbath, “Had it All” features a guitar solo from Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and some classical French Horn by Jody Sanders, Mother of Troy, reimagining Mastodon as a band intermingling with the monsters of Headbanger’s Ball. It’s all overseen by the legendary producer David Bottrill now including Hushed And Grim alongside his prior progressive pop landmarks from Peter Gabriel, Tool and King Crimson.
Yet for all of their technical mastery and ambitious musicianship, the most daring aspect of Hushed And Grim comes from the voices of Mastodon themselves. It’s not just in the tremendous growth all members have made as vocal performers, exemplified in the explosive shouts of “The Crux” and the aching refrain of “Skeleton of Splendor”; there’s an unmistakable expressive grit that cannot be coached, that takes years of endurance and pain to unlock.
As Mastodon’s music continues to expand outward, each member traveled inward, more deeply to unearth their most emotionally transparent lyrics yet. “One thing I've noticed about longevity is that you kind of eliminate layers of bullshit and become more honest,” Sanders muses. In the past, Mastodon albums were so memorable in their metaphorical heft that it threatened to swallow them whole - they’re the Moby Dick band, the Rasputin band, the guys who wrote about wolves and skulls. “We pull authentic emotion from our life experiences,” Sanders explains. “And we channel that through the art that we call Mastodon.” And the themes of heartbreak, of joy and hope that have always underpinned the band’s most referential work are pushed to the fore on Hushed And Grim.Look, they’re still called Mastodon - the metal is here, Kelliher and Hinds’ riffs are still massive, Sanders’ bass can level a mountain and Dailor’s drumming is every bit as dazzling in its intricacies. Yet, the towering “Had It All” was originally built from Sanders’ simple acoustic strum, Kelliher and Hinds’ interplay impresses with a newfound, nimble sense of melody and Dailor’s restraint is as thrilling as his blinding fills as “The Beast” brings a slow Southern shuffle to their repertoire. But Hushed And Grim dares you to see Mastodon as what they’ve always been - four friends from Atlanta who are subject to the same struggles as you and I. “I’ve turned the grief to medicine,” “I feel the pressure,” “death comes and brings with him sickle and peace,” “leaving you behind is the hardest thing I’ve done,” these are their refrains, to be shared between Mastodon and the listener as equals. “My love, so strong/The mountains we made in the distance/Those will stay with us” - these are Mastodon’s parting words on the closing “Gigantium,” and we is all-inclusive, to themselves, to the fans that have stuck with them throughout the years, and the new ones to come. And to Nick Johns’. Our time together can’t possibly last forever and, inevitably, Mastodon may one day be no more. Hushed And Grim will remain.