In the winter of 2002, my friends asked me if I wanted to go out to Burt’s Tiki Lounge and check out some metal band from Atlanta named Mastodon. I declined since I had never heard of them and I was burnt out on bars in general. When they all told me how stupid I was the next day, I brushed it off. My friends liked so many bands at the time that I just assumed they were another power metal band, and I hadn’t missed much. Then I bought Mastodon’s first full-legnth album, Remission (Relapse Records). I’ve never forgiven myself to this day …
[Mastodon]Last year proved to be another year of destroying the planet for Mastodon. Leviathan (Relapse) was released in 2004, and has been hailed by Terrorizer Magazine, Revolver Magazine and Kerraang! as “Album Of The Year,” and rightfully so. Leviathan is just as complex, indefinable and crushing as 2002’s equally acclaimed Remission. In a vaguely conceptual manner, Mastodon re-tell Herman Melville’s classic tale of Moby Dick. The epic story of a man driven to manic obsession by his hunt for a great yet fictional white whale is just as twisted and gargantuan as the music of Mastodon. Last month, I had the honor of conversing with Troy Sanders (vocalist and bassist) about his band’s decision to follow the theme of Melville’s novel.
“Well, the story of Moby Dick paralelled the lives of the four dudes in Mastodon so much, it was too easy for us to pick and pull similarities to Captain Ahab’s character and the pursuit of the whale, and the dedication, persistence and sacrifice,” says Troy. “The longevity of his trip was almost like what we’ve done in our band for the past five years. So we just thought it would be cool to do something themed-not a direct concept album- but something themed with water and creatures, which we’re all fascinated with.”
The success within the past four years for these four guys has been unparalleled by any metal band I can remember. From their first release in 2001 with the Lifesblood EP (Relapse) and two full-length albums later, Mastodon has emerged with style and presence that no critic or fan can ignore.
“All of the reviews have been super positive, and it’s nice to know that beyond writers and critics, the whole spectrum of music fans have enjoyed it,” says Troy. “We didn’t ever go into it to write albums that would please everyone; we just wanted to do an album that we’d love. Playing an eclectic brand of heavy rock, it’s nice to know there is some ‘mass appeal’ for our range of listeners.”
Mastodon’s music has never been accessible in any sense of the popular music world. Each album is swept by signature acoustic intros and sandwiched by non-describable riffs of such a complicated and brutal nature that it’s hard to imagine a world of people who could withstand its demand of focused attention. The vocals are poetic yet monstrous, and yet again, entirely human and understandable. Rhythmically, Mastodon will make your brain swell (particularly if you’re a drummer), but they keep their tempos driven and direct. They walk a hair’s-width line between abstract art noise and straightforward power rock. By avoiding the confines of death-metal or black-metal or any other category of extreme music, they’ve afforded themselves the opportunity to create a truly monolithic sound that no one but Mastodon could ever take credit for or reproduce.
“Our influences are, of course, going to collectively come out through the music and we’re fortunate enough to really tap into it,” says Troy. “We made kind of a big brew, or concoction of what we do and the end result is a band that has hundreds of different hairs of varied influences. When we all got together five years ago, we were all collectively into Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, Neurosis, The Melvins and The Jesus Lizard, and it was that core of five bands we all loved. Individually, however, our tastes go through an entire rainbow of music.”
Scott Kelly (Neurosis) provides backing vocals on Leviathan’s “Aqua Dementia,” while Neil Fallon (Clutch) wails over the choruses of the opening track, “Blood And Thunder.” Although this record belongs entirely to Mastodon, the collaborations with these artists add even more horsepower to the final composition.
“Well, we’ve all been friends with Scott; he’s a great dude, and Neurosis is an enormous influence on all of us,” says Troy. “When we were writing that song (“Aqua Dementia”), it reminded us of early Neurosis, so we called him and he said he’d be honored. We were like, “Holy shit, we’d be honored!”. The Neil Fallon idea came up because we’ve done three different tours, 87 shows to be exact, with Clutch. We thought the vocals on that part should be like a captain, or just a demanding type voice. Neil’s face and voice just kinda popped in our brains, so we asked him. He flew out to Seattle and recorded; got back on a plane to DC the same day.”
Touring has been Mastodon’s life for the past five years. Like any real, great rock band, they’ve spent an obscene amount of time on the road. When I spoke to Troy, he had just gotten home three days prior from five weeks across Europe and a week across Japan with Converge and Isis. If I had any idea how to get away with armed robbery, I would have flown to the far East to see that, which easily must have been one of the most destructive tours in history.
“It was phenomenal,” says Troy. “While we were there, all three bands respected and appreciated each other’s music so much, but we got along great as friends as well. So, we talked about how that tour would just be crushing if we could take it across the U.S. At the same time, we’re all booked through the better part of the year. We’re booked through September ourselves, so I don’t know how or when that will happen, but we all agreed that we need to do this in the future.”
Along with their own headlining tour for the next couple of months, they will be one of the bands on this year’s Ozzfest tour. So I may be able to erase my regrets of missing them play to 10 people at Burt’s Tiki Lounge by seeing them twice this year.
“That lineup is a solid group of bands this year,” says Troy. “Arch Enemy, In Flames, Rob Zombie, Killswitch Engage and us, oh, and The Haunted. And then at the end of the night, you’ve gotta see Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Oh, life is tough, man.”
I’m not going to pretend I’m not biased. Mastodon is definitely my favorite metal band in the entire world, and they have been for the past couple of years. Actually, they’re in my top three of all time, with Iron Maiden and Neurosis. Don’t take my word for it, though. Regardless of what you’re into, you need to check these guys out. Buy their records and really listen to them as compositions, then come with me on Monday, April 11, to the Lo-Fi Café (127 S. West Temple) and see what kind of wreckage we can cause in our ear canals. Mastodon wield thunder that would make Thor jealous. I thank them for the restoration of originality in the metal scene when things were getting so dull and similar.