MASTODON Discography Revisited

Now one of the most widely acclaimed and celebrated metal bands of the modern era, US progressive sludgemen Mastodon seem to get most of their attention for the three albums that would trail this debut. For one reason or another, it appears as if ‘Remission’ ducked under the radar for even some of the band’s more dedicated fans. This is made very peculiar by the fact that despite it’s rough presentation and imperfections, ‘Remission’ is a relatively enjoyable piece of work.

While I do not consider myself a big fan of this Atlanta-based group, I gained a measure of respect for them after listening to their 2009 opus ‘Crack The Skye,’ an ambitious concept album that incorperated a hefty dose of psychedelic and progressive influence into their gritty metal sound. ‘Remission’ shows the band at a much more stripped down and feral state, relying moreso on the power of each guitar riff than anything else. While the fact that the music doesn’t have a great deal of depth to the compositions or recording could spell weakness when briefly glanced over, the power to ‘Remission’ is greatly endearing, to say the least. The music here is driven by crunching riff after riff, backed up by some incredible kitwork by Brann Dailor.

On that note, the drumwork really brings the music alive, it feels at any given moment, Dailor is dishing out something interesting with the drumming. The rest of the musicians don’t necessarily stand out for each of their respective instruments, but the instruments are generally well orchestrated. Every once in a while, there is even the signature frenetic guitar lead riffs (that would be heard in greater detail on albums like ‘Blood Mountain’) here which despite taking part on an album that generally exercises intensity over complexity, still sound pretty great.

The production isn’t the best, but it’s excusable due to the feral, fiery nature of the music being played. Towards the latter half of the album, the songwriting tends to be slightly less memorable, although the last two tracks (‘Mother Puncher’ and ‘Elephant Man’) pick things back up again for a satisfying finale. The highlight of the album is the way in which it starts off, however. The first three songs flow together very smoothly, each filled with great riffs that overstay their welcome, interspersed with some surprisingly technical lead work and growls typical of the sludge metal scene.

Although I haven’t been fully convinced by some of the later work of this band, ‘Remission’ has really caught my interest for it’s fantastic riffs, energy and display of aggression. It does feel as if the band would lose a little bit of this flame in following albums, making way for a more progressive and musically ambitious feel. Despite lacking the depth of it’s musical successors however, ‘Remission’ is essential listening for the unwary Mastodon fan. Sludgy, angry grandeur.

After seeing MASTODON live in concert with OPETH a couple of nights ago, it persuaded me to return to the band’s music. It was not that I had been particularly impressed by their performance- on the contrary, I had found myself incredibly underwhelmed, and was left wondering ‘what’ it was about them that held me at bay. I suppose curiosity is as good a reason as any to revisit a band’s music, and completing my MASTODON listening experience with their sludge opus ‘Leviathan’, I can see why the Atlanta-based act has enjoyed such heavy accolades in recent years. Although it holds par relative to other records MASTODON has released before and after this one, ‘Leviathan’ may very well be the most consistent, consolidating the primordial mass they conjured with ‘Remission’ and harnessing it with a fine technical edge. The result is an album that’s both complex and fun as hell to listen to.

Although the solid balance between crushing riffs and progressive flair does give ‘Leviathan’ the sense that it’s the only album in MASTODON’s catalogue reaping the best of both worlds, it’s impossible to call this one better or worse than any other of the band’s albums. Each of them fits a mood, and in the case of ‘Leviathan’, the mood is that of sophisticated aggression. Although I may not have gotten the impression seeing some of ‘Leviathan’s songs performed live, the band’s performance is impressively technical by sludge metal standards. Although it’s easy to look at the so-called epic ‘Hearts Apart’ as an indicator of the band’s increasingly ambitious approach, the band’s strength lies in the quality of their riffs. ‘Blood And Thunder’ opens with an instantly memorable piece of guitar-crunch that gets the blood flowing from the start. Contrast that with the ferocious tech riffs in ‘Aqua Dementia’, and it’s clear that MASTODON are drawing from both wells with regards to their guitar work.

The technical stuff is arguably the more impressive, but largely because it is kept in such moderation, only popping up when it’s effective. MASTODON would later go on to take this sort of frantic bluegrass-style lead picking to new heights with the next album ‘Blood Mountain’, but the band uses it brilliantly as a counterweight here for the more primordial of the riffs. Of course, it’s impossible to speak of a MASTODON performance without at least mentioning the drum work of Brann Dailor, who is by all means the star of the show, both on record and in the live setting. Although the odd time signatures most readily attributed to progressive metal are not in full force on ‘Leviathan’, Dailor gives himself plenty of room to explore the kit, and it never once feels like the man is settling for a conventional drum beat.

‘Consistency’ really is the word that describes ‘Leviathan’ for me, for better and worse. The songwriting is solid throughout, and while there is not a single weak point here, I cannot point out a particular song that steals my heart. Although later albums would go to solve this issue, the songs often sound quite a bit alike one another. The sludgy riffs, crunchy tones, gruff vocals and aggression is constant throughout, save for the brief and mellowed epilogue ‘Joseph Merrick’, which also happens to enjoy the distinction of being apart from the album’s famed ‘Moby Dick’ concept. Even so, the piece feels more like an ‘exit music’ tack-on rather than something the album would weep and suffer PTSD over if it didn’t have it.

Although MASTODON is still somehow not a total sell for me, each of their albums is impressive in their own way, and ‘Leviathan’ is no different. Although the riff-fuelled energy appears straightforward at first, there is a sophistication in this band’s work that I would not normally expect from their style.

Although this is the third Mastodon album I’ve experienced, I will say that it is the first that I’ve really felt a connection with; my own rosetta stone so to speak, for this Atlantan metal quartet.

After two sludgy albums- the latter of which propelling Mastodon to the forefront of the metal scene- Mastodon’s third record ‘Blood Mountain’ is the logical follow-up to their breakthrough; an album that takes the sound they became famous with, and turns it on its side. While there is still the aggression and edgy vibe here that gave ‘Remission’ and ‘Leviathan’ the power to succeed as records, there is a new, progressive approach the band takes, emphasizing technicality and a deeply psychedelic dimension now.

The sheer ‘out there’ nature of the album and trippy overtones makes the album special for Mastodon, even when compared to their more generally acclaimed album ‘Crack The Skye’. Opening with a number more traditional of the band’s older style, ‘The Wolf Is Loose’ kicks off the album in a fairly deceptive fashion, while it is evident that the band has tightened up their act from ‘Leviathan’, things are very riff-based and sludgy for the first two tracks. While generally quite good, charged and fiery songs, ‘Blood Mountain’ doesn’t hit its real stride until ‘Sleeping Giant’ (the third track) rolls around. The intro sounds like something a dark psychedelic band would do, although the heaviness is still kept in check. From there on in, ‘Blood Mountain’ continues to develop it’s unique sound.

‘Capillarian Crest’ shows the album’s blistering technicality, a trait more often attributed to progressive metal than any sludge act out there. The weirdness culminates with the odd instrumental ‘Bladecatcher’, whose freakishly chaotic nature features electronic ramblings that almost sound like WALL-E (yes, of the Pixar film) is doing a guest feature. My personal favourite track on the album is ‘Colony Of Birchmen’, which seamlessly flows between deep grooves and more emotionally resonant sections.

Sporting their newfound fame, there are also a couple of very notable guest vocalists on the album. Of most interest to the metalhead would be Scott Kelly, of post-metal titans Neurosis. Also here is Cedric Bixler-Zavala of latin-tinged prog rock band The Mars Volta, an overt statement by Mastodon and their new alignment towards psychedelic music. Unfortunately, neither of these vocalists are used nearly as well as they could have been. While the singing done by the band members of Mastodon works quite well here, hearing a part from Zavala beyond some ambient wailing in ‘Siberian Divide’ would have made it quite a bit more than being merely worth having the guest’s names on the packaging.

‘Blood Mountain’ has plenty of fantastic moments and a very fresh sound for metal, but it does so at the expense of cohesion, a problem that would later be fixed by ‘Crack The Skye’. Partially due to the fact that the album is so ambitious with its sound, the album often feels very over the place, and many of the transitions between tracks feel half-baked and ineffective.

The fact remains however; before listening to Mastodon’s ‘Blood Mountain’, I did not readily consider me a fan of the band, even a mild critic of what I perceived to be a fairly overrated act. After hearing the band in their element here however, I have been able to appreciate the band as a whole, and especially their most musical work ‘Crack The Skye’ so much more. An excellent, adventurous piece of work.

Before listening to ‘Crack The Skye,’ I could safely say that Mastodon was certainly not ‘my cup of tea.’ While I am certainly aware of progressive tendencies in ‘Blood Mountain,’ there was never anything about the band that really made me want to call myself a Mastodon fan. While I am still not wholly convinced that the band is right for me, I can safely say that ‘Crack The Skye’ is a brilliant album, and despite being critically hailed as a bit more than it cuts out to be, a nice dose of a brand of progressive metal much unlike the more European- styled sounds of Dream Theater or Symphony X.

With ‘Crack The Skye,’ Mastodon craft a very dense soundscape, which at times is very easily likened to psychedelia. There is also a fair metallic dosage here, although it’s not near as brutal or heavy as alot of music lodged into the ‘extreme prog metal’ realm. If Mastodon has anything going for them, it’s that they sound very original in contrast to their other prog-metal contemporaries. It could be well-said that a substantial portion of modern progressive metal bands default to sounding like carbon copies of Dream Theater or Symphony X at the earliest behest. Mastodon -on the other hand- looks back to the band’s geographical roots (the band hails from Georgia, in the heart of the American southland) and instead of typical prog-rock influence, uses Southern rock as the main external voice to the sound of the band… While I have never been able to appreciate Southern rock too much in the grand scheme of things, it’s very fresh to see this melded with progressive metal.

The instrumentation in the album is fantastic. There is some great riffage here; the riff at the chorus of ‘Divinations’ in particular works very well in the sense that it is both progressive and complimentary to the song’s spirit. The album’s (or the band’s, I should say) main fault seems to lie with the vocals themselves. Brett Dailor -while I have nothing truly against the man or his work- does not have a voice or style that I have all too pleasing to listen to. His belting is far too nasal (in the likes of Ozzy Osbourne) and lacking in range or feeling to get any rise out of me… It is a shame that’s the problem with the album, because I’m sure that with a different singer with a more emotional vocal style, the album would have felt alot more emotionally fluid and organic. With extra added listens though, the veil falls down and the emotional quality initially hidden by Dailor’s gravelly voice is seen in full view.

Despite it’s few (yet pronounced) flaws however, ‘Crack The Skye’ is a great piece to get lost in for a little while, and is an album to look out for in 2009. As a closing note, I will say that it took me literally months of listening until the album finally hit me full force, and I realized it was such a fantastic work.

Expectations are a funny thing. When a new album comes out, quite often much of one’s first experience with it is determined before they even slip the record into the player. Whether it is their favourite band and they have been waiting ages for it, or it is an album that is ridiculed and they have been alerted of how bad it apparently is; all of these factors come together to form our expectation of an album, which- obviously based on the quality of the music itself- will greatly sway our response, even after the album is done. Enter Mastodon, a band I have always generally respected, but did not find much to justify the hype with them, even on their progressive opus ‘Crack The Skye’. With that in mind, I may not have had the greatest hopes for the new record, let alone the fact that everything I had heard about this in press releases tended to suggest that this was a simplified and even ‘dumbed down’ version of the band that had shown a lot of promise with their progressive direction. With that in mind, it may be merely my preconception that it was going to be a mediocre-at-best album, but I have found myself incredibly impressed by the reality of Mastodon’s new album; ‘The Hunter’. While I can definitely see where some of the descriptors were coming from concerning the new direction Mastodon has taken, the angle from which Mastodon sets off here sets the record straight for me. Not only has my feeling that this was going to be a mediocre album been more or less dispelled, but I would not hesitate in calling this the best album Mastodon have done to date.

Before the album was released, there was plenty of news that this was a simplified, ‘accessible’ version of Mastodon, and that they were turning their backs on the prog rock trends that the last two records had been rooted in, and going for a more straightforward rock sound. This label passes me very much the same way that the way similar-sounding The Mars Volta’s album ‘Octahedron’ was described as their ‘acoustic’ record. It is certainly not a literal description, and there is much more going on here than what the artists might lead on. Without a doubt, ‘The Hunter’ is the most eclectic Mastodon album to date; with songs here ranging from vivid psychedelia, to spacey metal, sombre prog rock and a handful of stoner rock. The only thing on ‘The Hunter’ that has truly lived up to my expectation are the song lengths, which are kept within a comfortable limit. There are no more bombastic epics here like here were on ‘Crack The Skye’, but the album manages to stay consistently exciting and interesting, thanks in large part to the diversity of the tracks.

Even from the first listen, each of these songs has a different identity from one another; some songs may follow similar paths, but each has a set of ideas that are entirely their own. Mastodon seems to have made an effort here also not to put any like-sounding songs on one after the other. Take the differences between the second track ‘Curl Of The Burl’, and its successor ‘Blasteroid’. The former is a bluesy piece of mid-tempo riff rock that relies on catchy melodies and straightforward structure, whereas ‘Blasteroid’ takes the listener on a trippy and exciting journey with all the psychedelic twitters entailed. ‘Stargasm’ continues this string of awesome song names with a much more melancholic sound, a very spacey piece that could have been plucked straight from ‘Crack The Skye’. As far as an overlying change of style and pace goes, I would say that Mastodon have more of a psychedelic influence in their sound than ever, although the metal sound has been largely preserved. I find the psychedelic, and more atmosphere-fueled sections of ‘The Hunter’ to be among the most interesting, although the heavier parts here are a little more hit and miss.

Mastodon’s sludgy riff work and distinctive tone are both here, but it works at its best when they are able to find the fine balance between hooks and heaviness. ‘Curl Of The Burl’ is an example of a song that tends to stray a little too far into hook territory, and probably best exemplifies why I feared ‘The Hunter’ would sound like. It may be memorable as a track, but there is no depth to it; and even before the first listen is done, I had the impression that there was now a big void in Mastodon’s sound. The only two songs that really realize this ‘accessible’ rock sound are ‘Curl’, and ‘Dry Bone Valley’. Neither gave me much of a rush, and they do feel like what’s keeping me from calling ‘The Hunter’ a masterpiece, because some of the other material on the album makes me want to make that leap. Mastodon have virtually perfected their spacey sound here, best represented by the album’s highlight ‘Stargasm’, and ‘The Sparrow’, a sombre track that closes the album in classic prog rock tradition; a trippy hymn that builds and lets the listener off on a perfect note. It is a perfect track for this album, because it gives me great motivation to experience the album all over again. I understand full well that many who are first listening to this album are already Mastodon fans, so taking for the fact that I- someone who never cared for them much in the past- am truly digging this album is a great sign for ‘The Hunter’. It is not a full step above ‘Crack The Skye’ in every way, but as the overall musical experience goes, it looks like Mastodon has a new record to outdo with anything they may release in the future.

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