Hail to Fire: An Introduction
For this generation, Mastodon has been the break-out metal artist, smashing through the glass-ceiling of mainstream rock, metal, and even indie rock consciousness off the back of years of hard labour, true grit, and stunning records. For those who have followed Mastodon since their primitive origins, witnessing this metal band’s rise in popularity has been an absolute thrill-ride that shows no signs of stalling. Similarities have been drawn to Metallica’s commercial ascent during the ‘90s, but unlike the Bay Area legends, Mastodon have not toned down their mind-boggling musicianship, even if they have become more “listenable” when comparing the band’s later work to their barbaric beginnings in underground metal.
The creative/commercial success of this Atlanta, Georgia four piece—whose line-up consists of Troy Sanders (vocals/bass), Brent Hinds (vocals/guitars), Bill Kelliher (guitars) and Brann Dailor (drums)—has been a confirmation that metal bands do not have to surrender creative control to receive backing from major labels, nor do they have to dilute their music to accomplish this. Mastodon have, in part, been responsible for making progressive metal a contemporary concern again, joining the likes of Tool as upper-tier royalty and evoking the spirit of the grand progressive rock bands of the ‘70s—Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, and Rush—who filled massive arenas without compromising their technical musicianship.
In recent times, there has been a wealth of boundary-pushing artists operating in various metal sub-genres that are discontented with the outright banality of the metal that was popular in the ‘90s. The underground has always championed and fed these experimental artists, but seeing such an increase in mass appeal of progressive metal, which in itself can hardly be labeled as being palatable, has been a cause for celebration. On an even larger scale beyond metal, another possible reason for this acceptance and subsequent success of bands like Mastodon boils down to the fact that people have grown weary of the disposable rubbish that has been labeled “popular music” and have disappeared down different musical avenues as a means to satiate their urge for music that engages the brain.
The internet has also played a substantial role in this development, and even though illegal downloads have had a negative impact on the record industry, because of our ever-advancing technology it has never been easier for someone to discover music that hasn’t been forced upon us. This accessibility makes for an exciting time to be an open-minded music fan; the horizon of artists past and present is there before us just waiting to be discovered. One can move from Frank Zappa to Tame Impala in a matter of minutes and doing so blurs all boundaries to the point where even the most challenging listen is welcomed with open arms by those most exposed. Because of this, there is now an immediate audience for every style of music—something which must be seen as a positive.
However, the bands themselves have to take the majority of the credit for this increased interest in challenging music, and currently Mastodon are riding high on the deserved acclaim that has fallen at their well-travelled feet.
When it comes to this band there has been no overnight whirlwind success; the praise that has been hoisted upon Mastodon is down to the band’s work ethic and talent. And as metal is not the most financially rewarding style of music, success is not judged solely by monetary gain but by leaving a legacy of records that are both musically rich and artistically rewarding. Frighteningly, Mastodon have already secured their legacy, and in order to understand how this band has reached such dizzying heights with their music, it’s essential to explore the band’s formative years, a time when Mastodon belonged to the underground, and the outside world was none the wiser...
We Built This Come Death: Early Recordings
Prior to the formation of Mastodon the band’s members were known in underground circles. Kelliher and Dailor had been a part of Steve Austin’s Today Is The Day project. Both musicians had backed Austin for Today Is The Day’s 1999 release In the Eyes of God, while Hinds and Sanders plied their trade in Four Hour Fogger to little-to-no fanfare. However, it was a choice meeting of all four guys at a High On Fire show that planted the seed for what would soon become Mastodon. With each member taking up residency in Atlanta, Mastodon set about busily compiling song ideas that would form their 2000 demo with vocalist Erik Saner. The nine-song demo shone a light on a young band with endless technical ability who could construct extremely raw songs that contained a wealth of potential. The demo would also prove to be the last recording with Saner, as he left shortly thereafter and passed his role as vocalist over to Hinds and Sanders who reluctantly took to the microphone out of necessity alone.
The 2000 demo, as well as the Slick Leg EP which followed, did enough to perk the ears of Relapse Records who saw the power behind the bands riffs and roars, sickening time changes, and Dailor’s virtuosic drum-work which combined the jazzy, freefall fills of The Who’s Keith Moon with the hard-hitting tenacity of Slayer’s Dave Lombardo. Relapse subsequently signed the band, and released the Lifesblood EP in August of 2001. Lifesblood revisited songs from the demo, with the Relapse platform giving Mastodon the opportunity to showcase their scalding brew of sludge, grind and hardcore that mutilated songs like “Hail to Fire” and “Battle at Sea.” During the time that this EP was being hurtled around, Mastodon tirelessly continued to work on new songs for their full-length debut—a record that would become the first in a procession of modern metal classics released by the Georgian heavyweights.
Trampled Under Hoof: Remission
The roar of a T-Rex signalled the beginning of one the most breathtaking metal debuts of all time, as the two-minute sludge landslide “Crusher Destroyer” burst into life. Remission revealed a focused and assured Mastodon; a band that had harnessed the untamable technicality and ragged energy of its first EPs, and the music that they created under the guidance of producer Matt Bayles (Isis/Botch) sounded fresh, electrifying, and heavy as hell. Songs such as “March of the Fire Ants” and “Where Strides the Behemoth” were absolute revelations, with Dailor’s martial snare-storm pitting itself against Kelliher’s and Hinds’s fiery riffs, and Sanders’s molasses-thick bass-lines laying down the impenetrable foundations. Elsewhere, the band’s new-found song-writing dynamism illuminated itself on the majestic “Ol’e Nessie” and the enveloping sludge of “Trainwreck,” songs separated by a frantic discharge of hardcore punk in “Burning Man.”
There was an erudite depth to the entire record, from the tumultuous instrumentation and song-sequencing, to Paul Romano's striking artwork of a white horse engulfed in flames. The band’s influences—Neurosis, The Melvins, Slayer, ZZ Top, Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, amongst others—were amalgamated throughout the volatile outbursts (“Mother Puncher”) and the more detailed compositions ( “Elephant Man”), and Remission hit both the cerebellum and gut with heavy blows. This debut laid down a gauntlet for their sludge metal peers, but also set high expectations for the band’s second studio release. At the time, few would have thought possible that Mastodon would top Remission, but these four musicians had something special up their tattered sleeves—a concept album.
Hearts Alive: Leviathan
Taking Herman Melville’s glorious piece of literature, Moby Dick, as a narrative, and dragging the theme of survival and chasing your goals into the 21st Century, Mastodon re-imagined the classic tome in the context of a progressive heavy metal record. Once Leviathan was released, Moby Dick seemed such a natural thematic base for a metal record that it was hard to believe Melville’s masterpiece hadn’t been utilized by a band before. One possible reason could be that, at the time, concept records were considered the stuff of skullet-sporting progsters; an artistic choice that had died a death an age ago and was buried inside Rick Wakeman’s chest of moth-eaten capes. Mastodon’s modern approach made the concept album seem vital again, and the subsequent rise in popularity of the concept album since 2004 has in no small part been a result of the colossal Leviathan.
While the use of this tale itself was a breath of fresh air, the music made it all the more impactful. Not since the church bell rang ominously on Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut or since “Aces High” caused a sandstorm at the beginning of Iron Maiden’s Powerslave has an album begat an unbridled opener the quality of Leviathan’s “Blood and Thunder.” That opening tidal wave of riffs and multi-limbed drum fills stunned from the first listen, as the song’s grandstanding guitar harmonies harpooned tales of the “White Whale,” while Clutch’s Neil Fallon roared amongst the resulting spray. The rest of the album proved to be just as dramatic: the tumultuous “Iron Tusk” rolled into “Megalodon,” which sounded like Slayer thrashing a Hank Williams show. Scott Kelly of Neurosis added apocalyptic screams to the searing instrumentation of “Aqua Dementia,” which in turn set up the truly epic “Hearts Alive” —a song which stretched itself across 13-minutes and entranced the listener for every single tension-filled second.
Leviathan put Mastodon on the metal map, and pushed the band into the waiting arms of mainstream metal fans around the world who were eager for music that sounded fresh, was technically accomplished, and was as heavy as the LP’s title suggested. As a result, Mastodon found themselves with a greater following and the almost flawless ratings it received from critics left the band with a monumental summit to climb on their next record. After being hunted by major labels, Mastodon subsequently signed with Warner Bros. Records for their third LP, and in the distance Blood Mountain appeared on the horizon.
Hunters of the Sky: Blood Mountain
Continuing their relationship with producer Matt Bayles, Mastodon set about concocting a fantastical tale for their 2006 Warner Bros. Records debut, Blood Mountain. Based on a hallucinatory journey where the protagonist is accosted by bizarre creatures such as the Cysquatch (a one-eyed Sasquatch) and moving tree people known as Birchmen in a quest to find a crystal skull at the peak of Blood Mountain, this record marked the point where Mastodon began exploring the outer reaches of prog rock with nods to Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd moving to the forefront of their sound.
Besides the fact that the band was now on a major label, Blood Mountain was also the point where Mastodon were, in essence, free from all limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, and because of this the band displayed real confidence in their willingness to try whatever strange ideas they could dream up (see: “Bladecatcher”). But more importantly, their imagination led to a record that was both thematically and musically sound. The fact that guest appearances from Josh Homme (“Colony of Birchmen”), Cedric Bixler-Zavala (“Siberian Divide”) and the returning Scott Kelly (“Crystal Skull”) were not the selling point of the record and that their contributions served the narrative alone stood as recognition that Mastodon had managed to achieve exactly what they had envisaged when writing music around their wild conceptual themes.
Like Leviathan, Blood Mountain topped the end of year polls, and consequently the size of the tours increased and so too did the crowds—which may have also been an added advantage of being on Warner Bros. Mastodon seemed like they could go stratospheric at this point, and as the band had conquered the elements of fire (Remission), water (Leviathan) and earth (Blood Mountain) with each record, it appeared that the only way forward was to reach out into the aether. And that’s exactly what the band did in 2009, and by doing so, wrote the progressive rock record of their lives.
Divination: Crack the Skye
Mastodon continued down the concept route with Crack the Skye and created a cosmic story around astral travel, wormholes and even the Russian rapscallion Rasputin—yet hidden amongst the imagery was a touching tribute to Dailor’s sister, Skye, who died at a young age. Even though the complexity implicit in the band’s past records was deliberately toned down, Crack the Skye was the spirit of Mastodon shone through a prog rock prism, and the resulting package was blinding: exquisite artwork created by Paul Romano, who had worked on the previous three records; a crystalline production courtesy of Brendan O’Brien, who replaced Matt Bayles; and decisive song-writing that followed the narrative to perfection.
Most of the music was written by Brent Hinds on acoustic guitar while recuperating after an assault which left him nursing a brain injury; not that you would know that by the scope and maturity of the music. While Dailor railed in his tumultuous drum fills to serve each song, his vocal contributions on opener “Oblivion” added a third dimension to Mastodon’s vocal attack, which had grown more tuneful which each passing record. Hinds’s and Sanders’s monotone roars on Mastodon’s early EPs, which acted as blunt percussion, had developed to the point that on Crack the Skye these two vocalists had learned how to craft seriously memorable vocal hooks, which were absorbed into the four-part suite “The Czar,” traded against perennial guest Scott Kelly on the title track, and pushed “The Last Baron” to an intergalactic climax.
Mammoth tours followed, whereby the band played Crack the Skye in its totality. (2011’s Live at the Aragon provides a decent documentation of this time period, even if some of the vocals are below par.) The record sold phenomenally well, and was bequeathed with critical acclaim across the board. From here it seemed like Mastodon could do no wrong, and the band’s confidence continued to ride at an astronomical height as the band took to scoring the DC comic-turned-box office movie Jonah Hex—subsequently releasing the Jonah Hex: Revenge Gets Ugly EP in 2011. After a run of three ornately conceived concept records, culminating in the pinnacle that was Crack the Skye, the winds of thematic change began to blow furiously through the Mastodon camp.
Creature Lives: The Hunter
Titled The Hunter as a tribute to Brent Hinds’ brother who passed away while hunting during the making of the band’s fifth studio record, this collection of Mastodon songs cast aside the confines of a tangible concept and rejoiced in some straight up, head-banging rock. Freed from overarching thematic ties, the music pared back the expanse and instead found Mastodon channeling the ganja grooves of Kyuss on “Dry Bone Valley,” with the riff returning as king throughout the catchy “Curl of the Burl” and the Scott Kelly assisted heft of “Spectrelight.” “Stargasm” gazed into the space left by Crack the Skye, “The Hunter” and “The Sparrow” brought heavy-hearted emotion and dexterous musicianship together, while Mastodon looked to The Beatles for inspiration on “The Creature Lives,” and returned to their sludgy origins on “Black Tongue”.
It was an eclectic mix of songs, each with a tangible energy that confirmed Mastodon were enjoying themselves creating individual songs with their own distinct feel and footing. The band moved producers again, this time using Mike Elizondo who, besides Avenged Sevenfold, was not a recognized metal/hard rock producer. Changes also came in the design front. Paul Romano was replaced for the first time by AJ Fozik, whose hands carved the contorted animal that decorated the cover. With all these sonic and aesthetic shake-ups, it was blatantly apparent that Mastodon were drawing a line in the sand on this record and the accessibility that the music brought to this album introduced the band for the first time to fans of hard rock who may have found Mastodon’s previous records technically demanding and overly intricate.
The Hunter was received with open arms as critics and fans could see the intention behind the simplification and the bands urge to just rock out without writing for a complex narrative. However, in the time since the release of The Hunter there is one question that still lingers: Where do the band go now that their fan-base stretches from die-hard underground metal fans who discovered the band on their first EPs and first LP, prog-minded individuals who dove head first into the three concept-laden records, and hard rock/indie fans who have stumbled into the path of The Hunter, or became aware of the band through their split with indie darling Feist?
Thank You For This: A Look to the Future
The question posed above will remain unanswered until such time as Brent Hinds, Bill Kelliher, Troy Sanders, and Brann Dailor begin mapping out the next step in the evolution of Mastodon. With a new album anticipated later this year, the world is now watching to see where strides this behemoth next, but if anything can be taken from Mastodon’s previous records it is that, wherever the music takes this band, you can rest assured that it will come from the heart, and will be written specifically for the four individuals creating it.
As with all great art it should be a selfish endeavour indebted to the souls of its creators alone. This group of four have always trusted their instincts and such self-belief has led to Mastodon becoming one of the most important and influential bands, regardless of genre, that this century has seen. The monstrous footprint of Mastodon has been felt across metal’s landscape the most, and the band’s trailblazing past has inspired fellow Georgian progressive sludge-fiends Baroness and Kylesa, who both share an affinity for Mastodon’s constant desire to push sonic boundaries and evolve musically by incorporating various outside stimuli.
Developing bands such as Black Tusk and Anciients have also taken direct inspiration from Mastodon, to the point where these bands now sound directly influenced by Mastodon, and not by the bands that influenced Mastodon. Moving beyond your influences and acquiring a sound of your own is the goal that every band should pursue ravenously. And that is the biggest compliment which can be placed upon this exceptional group: Whether wrestling in a mire of sludge, twisting time signatures beyond belief, reaching for the stars and beyond, or simply hammering a riff into oblivion, Mastodon now sound like Mastodon and nothing more. Let’s see what the future brings...
Written by Dean Brown
Design, Illustrations & Layout by Roger Strunk