Mastodon: Metal's Last Best Hope
Ran me $16.99 plus tax, and I'm not even mad
I did something yesterday that I haven't done in a good long time: I hit a record store on the way home from work and bought an album on the day of its release. I used to make a weekly tradition out of this: taking the bus a few extra stops, scanning the new-release rack, blowing money on anything that could plausibly be good; the lenient returns policy at Baltimore's Record & Tape Traders chain made this less of a gamble than it might've otherwise been. I used to look forward to Tuesday afternoons all week. But these days, I get pretty much everything I need for free. Labels and PR companies send me promos, and I have enough music-writer friends that I can usually find a burned copy of whatever else I want easily enough. For whatever reason, though, I didn't get a promo copy of Mastodon's Blood Mountain, and nobody else I know did either. If I'd been willing to wait, I probably could've found a copy for free, but I was fiending for this thing.
I'm probably herbing myself out hard here, but Leviathan, Mastodon's last album, is the first metal record I've absolutely loved since, like, Sepultura's Chaos AD. It's the album that made me start paying attention to metal again, the one reason that I started reading Decibel and checking out Morbid Angel shows and generally dipping my toe into a complicated subculture full of bands who almost certainly do not want to have a dilettante like me writing about them. Metal has become sort of the cool thing in indie-rock circles lately, what with Early Man dropping a record on Matador and Pitchfork showing love to Sunn0))) and Boris. In a lot of ways, it's just another predictable taste-shift in indie, and it's easy enough for metal lifers to deride all the curious newcomers as hipsters who will move onto something else soon enough; they might even be right. There are a lot of reasons why people like me might all of a sudden be heaping praise on High on Fire or the Sword: we're sick of the harps-and-flugelhorns showtune melodrama of Sufjan and his ilk, and we need to look outside of trad-indie for world-swallowing ambition and blood-gargling catharsis. True enough. But Leviathan probably has more to do with this new shift than anything else. It's a thunderously powerful metal record that came out at a time when most of us didn't even realize that we needed a thunderously powerful metal record in our lives. In this month's Decibel, during a roundtable discussion about "hipster metal," John Darnielle theorizes that the band's appeal may have something to do with their "literary quality"; Leviathan is a concept album about Moby Dick, and most indie-types don't want to be seen as ignorant lunkheads. I'm not sure about that; Leviathan's literary aspirations actually kept me from giving the album a chance for a few months. Seems to me that the band's appeal is more aesthetic. Mastodon's take on metal isn't alien to trad-rock sensibilities in the ways that say, Emperor's layered symphonic black-metal bombast is. Mastodon plays riffs slow enough to give their riffs a sort of megaton punch. They switch up tempos constantly, but those changes don't sound forced; the songs' different parts feel like pieces of an organic whole. The band pulls out some of the flashy tricks that a lot of us remember from grade school: flashy Iron Maiden twin-guitar leads, Metallica acoustic-flutter interludes, Sepultura tribal-stomp drums. But they also have a violently sludgy aesthetic that's been missing in indie-rock since Amphetamine Reptile went out of business; the vocals are buried deep in the mix, and the guitars have so much distortion that they sound somehow soothing even when they're launching into discordantly high-pitched solos. Mastodon may be America's last pigfuck band.
Enough people loved Leviathan that Mastodon ended up with a major-label contract, the sort of thing that could potentially kill a band who lives and dies by its culty insularity. But Blood Mountain is viscerally satisfying in the exact same ways that Leviathan was. It's got the same production, same cover artist, same everything. Anthony Bartkewicz's cover story of the new Decibel is all about what might happen if the album blows up huge, if it becomes underground metal's Nevermind and Mastodon ends up sucking all its peers into the mainstream the same way Nirvana once did. It's a tantalizing idea, but it's not something I can really see happening. There's a world of difference between Bleach and Nevermind; Nirvana actively rethought their entire aesthetic when they went looking for a bigger audience. Mastodon did nothing of the sort. The dudes in Mastodon don't even write choruses; every song just sort of flows from one bit to the next. Vocalists Brent Hinds and Troy Sanders barely sing a decipherable word over the course of the album. Even the prettier moments still have a sort of seasick lurch to them. The band continues to function almost as an egalitarian unit. There's no clear frontman, and the different instruments seem to take turns controlling the throb rather than letting the bass and drums lay the bed. There's some goofy concept at work about a mountain with a crystal skull at the center and mythical beasts living in its nooks and crannies, and none of that is particularly interesting to me, but if it's what this band needs to sound this huge, fair enough.
Unless Nickelback counts as metal (and God help us if they do), metal's cultural prominence is at an all-time low. Bands like Iron Maiden and Slayer used to be able to headline arenas, and they still can, but they're headlining arenas on the strength of albums they released twenty years ago or more. It's been a long minute since an album of epic roars and power-fantasies managed to elbow its way into the national consciousness. I don't think Blood Mountain is that album; the climate has changed too much to allow something this weird and uncompromising to sneak in. But I hope I'm wrong.
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