45 RPM: Mastodon (Pt. 1)


For the next few weeks, longtime Heave associate and sometime contributor Jonathan Mondragon will be taking the reins of 45 RPM from Josh Watkins. This week, Jonathan begins his look at the discography of everything-metal stalwarts Mastodon.

Remission (2002)

Fire, a whole lot of fire. Every Mastodon release up to 2012 has been associated with an element, with Remission being fire, and this is definitely an understatement. Exploding right away with searing-yet-brief opener “Crusher Destroyer,” a title so fitting, it’s almost self-aware of the carefully calculated destruction this album is about to unleash, we are led into fan-favorite track “March of the Fire Ants.” That track shifts between pure sludge, melodic lead guitar harmonies by guitarists Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds, and growled vocals provided by vocalist/bassist Troy Sanders and Hinds.

Following the “march” is “Where Strides the Behemoth,” beginning with a seemingly nonsensical lead part that proves to be one of the catchiest riffs on the album, and following with a ruthless barrage of sludgy downtuned guitars, fiercely technical drumming, sandpaper growls and memorable riff after memorable riff. “Workhorse” is filled with powerchord riffs and shifting time signatures, as well as lyrics expressing anguish over the toil of working a job day-in and day-out. “Mother Puncher” may be one of Mastodon’s most fun songs (with a fantastic title), while still “punching” you in the face for almost four minutes straight. This description can be used in one way or another for every song on this album, making it one of its only weak points.

Compared to the rest of Mastodon’s catalog, this album lacks diversity for the average non-metal fan. There are few clean vocal parts, few clean guitar parts (“Ol’e Nessie” and “Elephant Man” aside) or interludes. Mastodon has always maintained a reputation of being very accessible to those that normally aren’t accustomed to listening to metal. For this crowd, Remission may prove to be a difficult listen, but it should not be ignored by any means. It is perhaps one of the most important and impressive heavy albums of the 2000s, and if you survive the ride without tenth-degree burns, continue on to slay Moby Dick and bear witness to their most critically acclaimed release…

Leviathan (2004)

Many great things have happened for Mastodon because of this album. An impressive amount of publications (including NPR) consider it one of the most important and game-changing metal albums of the 2000s. They were asked to play the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2006, normally unheard of for a metal band of their caliber. They played a surprisingly well-received set, and introduced themselves to a whole new audience. They also headlined a tour featuring Slayer, Lamb of God and Slipknot. None of these things would have happened were it not for the success of Leviathan. Opening with groovy, chug-filled, palm-muted mega-hit “Blood and Thunder” (which features Clutch lead singer Neil Fallon on guest vocals), the album’s recurring themes are introduced, mainly water, Moby Dick, Captain Ahab and the perilous journey Ahab must undertake to sate his obsession.

This album has been said to be a loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Next up is “I Am Ahab,” a short but furious assault, sounding very similar to some of the standout tracks on Remission. “Seabeast” is next, and this is where things start to get interesting. A band that used to place great importance on sheer technicality, brutal vocals and power wrote a mysterious, unpredictable track, and one of their first with clean vocals, and lots more conventional melody. And the album only gets better! “Island” and “Iron Tusk” both provide the listener with some more fantastic brutal, downtuned shredding and growled vocals before the band starts switching things up for a nice change of pace.

“Megalodon” unleashes a combination of mysterious guitar arpeggios, relentless thrash riffage, country chicken pickin’ and classic early Mastodon sludge. With “Naked Burn,” this is where things get interesting. There are few growled/aggressive vocals on this song, and while still being punishingly heavy, it gives a good indication as to the more melodic direction Mastodon would explore after Leviathan. The two tracks following this, “Aqua Dementia” and “Hearts Alive,” are the climax of the album, where Ahab must come to terms with his madness and face Moby Dick once and for all. “Aqua Dementia” opens with skilled lead guitar licks (more fitting to country music than this brand of metal, but again, showing a diverse palette of musical ideas) and proceeds into a more expected furious assault.

That’s before getting to one of the best moments on any Mastodon album, the song’s bridge, which features a classic guest spot from Scott Kelly, vocalist/guitarist of legendary art-metal band Neurosis, who has been featured on every Mastodon album to date except Remission. The Drop A guitars chug ruthlessly while Kelly’s expressive howling mirrors the final thoughts of a drowning Ahab. 13-minute semi-closer “Hearts Alive” manages to take everything you’ve learned to love about Leviathan and cram it into one song, tying the whole album together. The journey of Ahab comes to a close with a beautiful, acoustic instrumental closer/exitlude “Joseph Merrick,” paralleling the closer of Remission “Elephant Man.” You would think after such an epic, incredible critical success so well-received by the masses, Mastodon would release a slump and fall into relative obscurity. Well, you could not be more wrong.

Blood Mountain (2006)

So you’ve survived the fires of Hell and proved your seaworthiness, but are you ready to scale Blood Mountain? Representing the element of earth, the concept of this album revolves around the nameless protagonist searching for a legendary “Crystal Skull” that he must place atop Blood Mountain. Throughout his quest, he meets many mythical beasts and obstacles he must face, such as the one-eyed sasquatch called the “Cysquatch,” ravenous wolves, and the fearsome Birchmen, among others. The album is also a tribute to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth/hero’s journey, a popular literary pattern found in many adventure stories. Blood Mountain begins with “The Wolf is Loose,” another hit single that’s over all too quickly and leaves you feeling like you were the one just battling a wolf. The song makes mention of certain key elements of Campbell’s Hero Cycle, such as the “hero,” “threshold” and “refusal of return.”

“Crystal Skull” includes one of the best riffs the band has come up with to date, as well as some of Brann Dailor’s best drumming (hell, it was so good, he used it to enter in the 2007 Guitar Center Drum-Off and won) and yet another memorable guest vocal spot by Neurosis’ Scott Kelly. There is more mesmerizing Brent Hinds country chicken pickin’ to be found on single “Capillarian Crest,” which proves to be the technical centerpiece of the album. I’m sure most of the music community would faint at the thought of ever trying to cover it. “Circle of Cysquatch” follows in the vein of early Mastodon, with more confusingly melodic leads, pummeling sludge guitars and aggressive vocals.

The interlude “Bladecatcher” is another fan favorite and live staple. Being mostly instrumental, save for some comical gurgling and vocal effects, it shows a much quirkier side to this band, while still showing second-to-none musicianship and riffs that belong amongst the best in the genre. Grammy-nominated single “Colony of Birchmen” is perhaps their most accessible tune to date, recommended for any new fan interested in their catalog. It features guest vocals by the great Josh Homme of Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age, yet another unique and essential addition to the album. “Siberian Divide” is a haunting number evoking feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and uncertainty, as the protagonist navigates a harsh arctic wasteland on his way to the peak of the mountain. Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta and At the Drive-In provides guest vocals on this track, and though heavily processed, they add a mystical element to an already standout tune.

All of the heaviness, anger, melody, psychedelia and struggle have led to this moment, to the outstanding, melodic, and victorious closer “Pendulous Skin,” which leans heavily on classic rock, southern rock, and psychedelic rock tendencies. Isaiah “Ikey” Owens of The Mars Volta is featured on keyboards on this song, and his organ makes the song sound that much more old-school. The shred solo at the blistering finale is so full of resolution, climax, and victory, that you almost feel like the whole journey was your own and you are the one to walk out on top. This album is their magnum opus, and should be given a fair shake by anyone interested in discovering a band not afraid to toy with the boundaries of what is considered “metal.”

(Check back this time next week, when Jonathan digs into the newer set of Mastodon’s offerings.)