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Wayback Machine: Age of the Mastodon
A retrospective pass through the storied career of Atlanta's prog-metal giants.
Back in March, I was fortunate enough to publish a lengthy retrospective piece on Atlanta prog-metal giants Mastodon for GRAMMY.com, in celebration of the group’s Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance (which they eventually lost to Dream Theater; sad!) and the twentieth anniversary of their first LP, Remission, in May of this year:
Well, next week, I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be presenting my research paper based on the analysis contained in that piece at Oxford University:
For this week’s paid subscriber extra, I wanted to pull together a retrospective playlist that walks you through Mastodon’s diverse career, tracking their evolution from sludge metal purveyors to hard-rocking psych wanderers. Enjoy!
“Slickleg” — Call of the Mastodon (2006)
“Featuring tracks from the Slickleg and Lifesblood EPs—both originally released in 2001 and remastered by original producer Matt Washburn—this compilation LP showcases a proto-Mastodon still in formation. Repackaged out of sequence, the compositions sound less like the towering and imposing beast of their Pleistocene namesake and more like a wild elephant calf finding its feet. However, this sonic adolescence still provides subtle hints toward the band’s future potential. […] While the compilation may lack the overall narrative cohesion and vision of their later records, Call of the Mastodon should ultimately be viewed as the band's first ‘true’ album—a sentiment guitarist Bill Kelliher expressed to Loudwire in 2017.” (GRAMMY.com)
“March of the Fire Ants” — Remission (2002)
The sonic leap from Mastodon’s early EPs to the group’s debut LP, 2002’s Remission, is noticeably stark. Tracks like “Burning Man” and lead single “March of the Fire Ants” draw on blistering hellfire imagery to add emotional colour to sodden expressions of hopelessness and torment. Others, like “Where Strides the Behemoth” and “Ol’e Nessie,” channel mythical creatures as metaphors for revelatory visions and desperate soul-searching, while “Trampled Under Hoof” throws back to the “life’s blood” of the group’s origins.
“Blood and Thunder” — Leviathan (2004)
On their highly anticipated full-length follow-up, 2004’s Leviathan, Mastodon find resonance and narrative coherence in an otherwise unlikely source: author Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Album opener “Blood and Thunder” is a churning tempest of swollen grooves, sporting one of the most iconic and recognizable riffs in contemporary metal. Vigorous cuts like “Aqua Dementia,” “Naked Burn,” and the neo-thrash squall of “Megalodon” successfully split the difference between density and playfulness, liquid melody and roaring bombast.
“Colony of Birchmen” — Blood Mountain (2006)
With their status as metal titans now solidified, Mastodon used this creative freedom to refine and expand their sonic template, taking the proven format of the concept album and fully embracing their progressive tendencies. While the album’s third single, “Colony of Birchmen,” scored the group their first Grammy nomination, the track also acts as a direct homage to drummer Brann Dailor’s love for English rockers Genesis and “The Colony of Slippermen” featured on 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
“Oblivion” — Crack the Skye (2009)
Taking this conceptual thrust to its logical end, Mastodon’s fourth album, 2009’s Crack the Skye skips the next elemental cue, air, and instead concludes their 2000s output by pushing further into the transcendental realm of space with aether as its elemental lodestar. Bolstering the group’s already potent vocal roster with the welcome addition of Dailor’s melodic croon to the throaty roars and gruff bellows of guitarist Brett Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders, lead singles like “Divinations” and “Oblivion” launch their weighty sonic profile into the stratosphere off the back of arresting hooks, supernova riffs and sublime vocal harmonies, approaching something close to anthemic transcendence.
BONUS: “The Czar” — Live at the Aragon (2011)
While Dailor stressed to Billboard in 2009 that these conceptual layers rested on “metaphors for personal shit,” his explanation of the record’s overarching narrative reveals the group’s most explicit use of prog-like themes. Perhaps grasping the weighty import of the cerebral odyssey the quartet had constructed, Kelliher acknowledges that Mastodon conceived of playing Crack the Skye in full as a near-hour-long audio-visual experience akin to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Lengthy tracks like “The Czar” stretch out their expansive compositional structure to encompass a tale of political intrigue and Mephistophelian bargains told in four distinct parts.
“Stargasm” — The Hunter (2011)
“The Hunter (2011) was a lean and multi-faceted record that pulled liberally from their back catalogue while also remixing stylistic influences with a sharp ear for accessibility. GRAMMY-nominated single ‘Curl of the Burl’ plays out like a funked-up QOTSA, with ‘Octopus Has No Friends’ and ‘Dry Bone Valley’ acting as spiritual cousins to the mind-melting psych of their previous LP. […] Tracks like ‘Blasteroid’ and ‘Stargasm’ embody what Dailor describes as ‘super-heavy Led Zeppelin,’ walking a fine line between meaty drop-C chugging and shimmering lead work. The cackling laughter and Moog synth-scapes that open the epic ‘Creature Lives’ feel like sincere Pink Floyd worship.” (GRAMMY.com)
“High Road” — Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014)
“Much like Oakland-based artist Skinner’s evocative album cover—a vivid ‘psychedelic nightmare painting’ of a tessellated cosmic dragon-demon figure—Once More ‘Round the Sun cycles through eerily familiar moods and themes. […] Album opener ‘Tread Lightly’ hits like the Mastodon of old; ‘High Road’ contrasts crunchy, riff-heavy sections with a strong hook and Hind’s flashy fret-work; ‘Feast Your Eyes’ and ‘Chimes at Midnight’ offer up the high-octane verses, open choruses and spacey bridges that have become the quartet's signature. Things also get weird in spots: Dailor’s soaring chorus on ‘The Motherload’ is one of the group’s most direct attempts at a radio-rock hit—even if the single’s twerk-laden video makes for a fun little head-scratcher.” (GRAMMY.com)
“Sultan’s Curse” — Emperor of Sand (2017)
“‘Sultan's Curse’—which earned the group their first GRAMMY win for Best Metal Performance—pairs Hinds’ intricate leads with Kelliher’s charged rhythms before bursting open into swelling melodies from Dailor and Sanders. Then, immediately chasing that shot of adrenaline with a mid-tempo alt-rocker, ‘Show Yourself’ takes that Mastodon formula and promptly twists it into grungy, truck-stop radio territory. […] Unifying themes of survival and temporality, Emperor of Sand focuses on a protagonist facing a death sentence from a cruel desert sovereign, ultimately forced to wander alone in a barren wasteland and confront the grim shadow of their own mortality.” (GRAMMY.com)
BONUS: “White Walker” — Medium Rarities (2020)
What do you do when you’re given the chance to star in the world’s biggest television show? Write your own theme song/themed song, of course! Resting on a chant-heavy, mid-tempo tribal beat, “White Walker” featured on the Game of Thrones: Catch the Throne Vol. 2 mixtape (2015)—alongside other artists like Killswitch Engage and Snoop Dogg—to promote the HBO show’s fifth season, where Dailor, Hinds, and Kelliher also appeared in episode eight as wildlings.
“Toe to Toes” — Cold Dark Place (2017)
During the sessions for Once More ‘Round the Sun and Emperor of Sand, Mastodon accumulated a bunch of material that didn’t make it onto either record. Rather than let those creative juices go to waste, the quartet instead squeezed out a supplementary four-track EP titled Cold Dark Place. “Toe to Toes” is the only track of the four to feature from the Emperor of Sand sessions, and it’s a fun, poppy, introspective little cut that puts quaint studio elements like claps and lap steel to work in making melodies for Mastodon’s moody sonic labyrinth.
“Pushing the Tides” — Hushed and Grim (2021)
“After everything Mastodon have delivered across their prodigious career, it’s fitting that their first effort for a new decade is also their most ambitious. Composed of 17 tracks and clocking in at nearly 90 minutes in length, the spellbinding double LP Hushed and Grim (2021) requires a certain level of commitment even for the most dedicated fan. […] Opener ‘Pain With An Anchor’ echoes this sentiment with a sorrowful ode to the sting of defeat. Grief then turns to righteous anger on ‘The Crux,’ ‘Savage Lands’ and ‘More Than I Could Chew,’ while the closing trio of disc one—‘Skeleton of Splendor,’ ‘Teardrinker’ and ‘Pushing The Tides’ (also the band’s sixth and latest GRAMMY nomination for Best Metal Performance) — move swiftly from moments of melodic mourning to raging bursts of energy.” (GRAMMY.com)