Though often shunned by conservative fans for not being “true” metal, Mastodon continues to gain in popularity by pushing the limits of what its record store bin is meant to contain. Formed in Atlanta by veterans of Social Infestation, Four Hour Hogger and, most significantly, experimental metal acts Lethargy and Today Is the Day, the quartet — united by a love of Neurosis, the Melvins and Thin Lizzy — started out playing noisy death metal but developed into a distinctively diversified beast with startling speed. By committing the sin of attracting fans (and, most damning, critics) who don’t normally wear spiked wristbands and black metal T-shirts to concerts, the band came to be called “hipster metal,” a label since used to highlight/blacklist any number of acts with appeal outside of the usual headbanging circles. With an inherent musicality, supreme self-confidence and an irrepressible sense of adventure, Mastodon barrels gleefully forward, redefining what its genre represents along the way.
The band debuted with the five-song Lifesblood, 15 blazing minutes of deathcore fury. Harshly shouted vocals by bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds ride the bucking bronco of Hinds and fellow axe-smasher Bill Kelliher’s grinding riffs, while drummer Brann Dailor — one of contemporary metal’s greatest skin-beaters — keeps the rhythms both roiling and dead on time. The primal roars “Hail to Fire,” “Shadows That Move” and “Welcome to the War” essentially keep the death metal faith, but the complex, tone-shifting “Battle at Sea” and the relatively melodic “We Built This Come Death” are a preview of things to come. (Following the band’s signing to Reprise, Relapse repackaged Lifesblood with four other early tracks as Call of the Mastodon.
Bolstered by Matt Bayles’ clean, clear production, Mastodon strikes harder and with more precision on Remission. The band folds in more accessible melodies — “March of the Fire Ants” boasts ambitious riffery somewhere between classic metal and grindcore; rather than hit like a gutpunch, “Trainwreck” flows like power chord-enhanced lava. The unfolding intro and 6/8 sections of “Ol’e Nessie” hint at a more than passing interest in prog rock. The lengthy “Elephant Man” augments an already expansive arrangement with acoustic guitars. Mastodon never stints on its original power: if anything, the band has gotten heavier. “Crusher Destroyer,” “Mother Puncher” and “Where Strides the Behemoth” stomp like pissed-off Tyrannosaurs, while the savage “Burning Man” adds thrash to the group’s boiling stew. Continuing to develop its outsider attributes while staying true to its headbanging roots, Mastodon takes a significant step forward.
Musical developments were only an iceberg tip of the band’s ambition, as its next record proved. A full-blown concept album, Leviathan takes as its inspiration Herman Melville’s masterstroke Moby Dick, albeit in mutated form. The blasting “I Am Ahab,” the melodic “Seabeast” and the perfectly titled “Blood and Thunder” directly reference the novel, but the crunching “Megalodon” nods to a giant prehistoric shark, the shockingly pretty instrumental “Joseph Merrick” eulogizes the Elephant Man and “Aqua Dementia” celebrates the madness of an ocean voyage that could be taking placing anywhere, anytime. Regardless of fealty to its source, the album displays musical maturity in its composition and performance, as the band channels all of its influences into an artistic statement that flows like syrup on pancakes. Check the magnificent epic “Hearts Alive” for the album in microcosm. Conceived more as an excuse to indulge in a love of sea monsters and oceanic beauty and fury than as an exploration of Melville’s themes, Leviathan is Mastodon’s most fully realized album yet. Scott Kelly from Neurosis and Neil Fallon from Clutch add vocals to, respectively, “Aqua Dementia” and “Blood and Thunder.”
Enlisting in the majors did nothing to dampen Mastodon’s heavy rock spirit, as evidenced by Blood Mountain. The opener, “The Wolf is Loose” cleaves skulls nicely; its successor, “Crystal Skull” (again with Scott Kelly pitching in) drinks the blood. The quartet indulges its thrash jones with the savage “Circle of Cysquatch,” gallops down the mountainside in full battle armor with “Hand of Stone” and plays mix-and-match with various metal and heavy rock styles in “This Mortal Soil” and “Capillarian Crest.” Elsewhere, the band gets psychedelic on “Sleeping Giant” and “Pendulous Skin,” skillfully blends a soaring proggy melody with heads- down grunge on the concert staple “Colony of Birchmen” (which guest-stars Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme) and shows a silly sense of humor by endowing the complex riffing of “Bladecatcher” with ridiculous, incomprehensible helium vocals. Free of self-imposed conceptual limits, the band sounds more confident and relaxed, exploring its own talent with skill and a smile.
Mastodon returns to conceptual territory with a vengeance on Crack the Skye. Though the narrative is pretty impenetrable — something about an astral-projecting paraplegic, Rasputin and Stephen Hawking’s wormhole theories paying tribute to Dailor’s deceased sister — the music continues Mastodon’s evolution into a streamlined prog-metal machine. “Ghosts of Karelia,” “Divinations” (which, startlingly, begins with a banjo) and the title track feature some of the band’s most accessible tunesmithery without compromising its essential heaviness. “The Last Baron” and a four-part monster, “The Czar,” deftly shift musical tone and emotional mode, holding listeners in an iron velvet grip over the course of, respectively, 13 and 11 minutes. With the aid of superstar producer Brendan O’Brien, the group downloads everything — sternum-shattering riffs, soaring melodies, gruff harmonies, thrashing rhythms, cosmic lyricism — learned in its time together into one big shiny ball of hard rock majesty. Crack the Skye is so frequently amazing that it’s easy to overlook the convoluted concept allegedly driving it. Mastodon’s best album? (Scott Kelly puts in his usual appearance, this time on the title track.)
Live at the Aragon presents Crack the Skye live in full, played almost exactly as it is on record. While Mastodon’s ability to reproduce its most accomplished piece of music onstage is impressive, the lack of spontaneity in the tight arrangements doesn’t make for an essential document, though it includes a few non-Skye ringers and an appropriate pounding of the Melvins’ “The Bit” at the end. Better to watch the DVD component, which displays the thematic films projected behind the stage (also available separately in the bonus section).
Taking a break from space rock storylines, the band returned to the studio with pop producer Mike Elizondo for The Hunter. An application of mainstream polish means most of the vocals are sung rather than shouted or growled, song titles are more playful than usual, the arrangements are slimmed down and the heaviness rarely pushes into the red zone. The single “Curl of the Burl,” “Octopus Has No Friends” and “Bedazzled Fingernails” boast hummable tunes that dominate each track, while “Creature Lives” and the title track (a tribute to Hinds’ recently deceased brother) luxuriates in the kind of Floydian balladry that might yet yield radio play. The nods to mainstream pallatability and a general lack of focus keep The Hunter from reaching the heights of previous albums. Fortunately, the bludgeoning “Spectrelight” (another Kelly cameo) and the fierce temper tantrum “Blasteroid” shows that the band isn’t quite ready for classic rock radio just yet.
Live at Brixton is a a digital-only audio/video release. Which is a drag, as it’s the superior Mastodon concert document. Not being tied down to a single conceptual piece frees the band up to not only attack its songs with marked energy and enthusiasm, but also to take the audience on a journey through the best of its now decade-long career. Songs from The Hunter gain muscle they could’ve used in the studio, tunes from Crack the Skye work nicely outside the confines of their framework and early work holds up perfectly well against the band’s later, more acclaimed endeavors. Moreover, Mastodon really show off their musicianship, particularly in Dailor’s extraordinary drumming and the masterful interplay between Hinds and Kelliher. Live at Brixton brilliantly sums up Mastodon’s catalog thus far, establishes it as one of the best live rock bands on the planet and serves as a perfect place for newcomers to begin.
Brent Hinds’ musical restlessness is evident not only by a raft of side bands but by the double-disc release of two of them at the same time. Fiend Without a Face throws together surf, rockabilly and skillet-licking C&W into a zany stew like the Sadies gone psychobilly. Skillfully performed and fun, though hardly essential. Hinds merely plays lead guitar in the shambling octet West End Motel, letting singer Tom Cheshire shoulder the focal point responsibility for the EP. The band’s lounge-lizards-from-hell Americana won’t make Tom Waits nervous, but it’s effective enough on its own modest terms.