Mastodon

Remission
Leviathan
Blood Mountain
Crack the Skye


Remission (Relapse ‘02) Rating: A-
Formed around the talents of bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, lead guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds, rhythm guitarist/vocalist Bill Kelliher, and drummer Brann Dailor, this Atlanta, Georgia quartet was one of the best heavy metal bands of the 2000s. Although they would further refine and expand their sound on even better subsequent albums, Mastodon was great right from the get-go, as Remission ably demonstrates their crushingly heavy and at times admirably atmospheric sound, which encompasses a multitude of influences ranging from progressive rock to Southern rock to hardcore. The hardcore influence is more pronounced on this album than later ones, particularly the barked/shouted vocals which are probably the band's weakest link (which is why they would later sometimes employ guest vocalists), as it is their dazzling musicianship that really stands out, particular drummer Dailor. Man, this guy produces what sounds like an avalanche of drums, as his seemingly non-stop flurries fill in every open space, which can get a bit draining but which is also undeniably exciting and relentlessly interesting. The band on the whole play tight to the bursting point, and their sound is abrasive (this is not top 40 stuff) but accessible, which is quite a winning combination. The band maintains a consistent quality throughout, with songs like "Crusher Destroyer" and "Where Strikes The Behemoth" being every bit as massive and intimidating as their titles, but my favorite tracks are probably the ones where the band adds a little bit of mood to their overwhelming might. Epic tracks such as "Ol'e Nessie" and "Elephant Man" (strangely enough the last song on this and the next two albums relate to the Elephant Man, surely a quirky oddity if ever there was one!) are heavy at times but also have moody mellower sections and are all the more powerful for their restraint, which allows the band to build the tension rather than just pummel you over the head repeatedly. Anyway, Remission is a genuinely thrilling first album, but the band would get even better.

Leviathan (Relapse ’04) Rating: A
I remember that when my friend Guy was fortunate enough to open for these guys with his band Mr. Mama right before this album was released, he told me that these guys would be the next big thing in metal circles (they are way too extreme to get radio airplay). Well, he was right, and Leviathan was an improvement on Remission due to its more polished production (again courtesy of Matt Bayles), increased tunefulness, and more melodic vocals. There's still too much of the guys screaming their heads off, and vocals still aren't a band strength (perhaps recognizing this, Neil Fallon of Clutch and Scott Kelly of Neurosis provide guest vocals), but this album is an improvement in that area. What remains from Remission is the band's pummeling force and superior musicianship, with the guitarists unleashing a ton of memorable riffs and Dailor again a seeming octopus as his dizzying fills can't help but dominate. As you might surmise by the album's title and bitchin' cover art, this is a loose concept album (as of this writing the first of three in a row) about Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, and surprisingly it works, musically focusing the band and providing fodder for many an interesting lyric. Like most great bands, Mastodon transports the listener as we follow the obsessed Captain Ahab on his doomed quest across the vast wintery oceans for the elusive white whale. "Blood and Thunder" starts the album with a massive surge and a monstrous intensity, "I am Ahab" and "Iron Tusk" are great groove-based mashers, with the former having more melodic vocals, which also appear on "Seabeast," "Naked Burn," and "Hearts Alive," the latter a near 14-minute epic that builds impressively and features moody mellower sections plus a rare (great) guitar solo; more would be forthcoming on later albums, as most of these songs are concise and to the point, this one being a major exception of course. "Joseph Merrick" is a nice mellow comedown after all the preceding intensity, though I can see how some might consider it anticlimactic after "Hearts Alive." Anyway, I like it, and I really like this album on the whole, as the band further solidify their highly technical progcore sludge metal sound so that their composite influences fall by the wayside, and all you're left with is the mighty singularity of Mastodon.

Blood Mountain (Reprise ’06) Rating: A-
Another blistering offering from these heavy metal behemoths, Blood Mountain, the band’s major label debut, is perhaps a notch below Leviathan (and their later masterpiece Crack the Skye) but is still a corker of an album. Like Leviathan this is a concept album, only the story is much odder, something about a man being stranded on a strange mountain where he embarks on a fantasy quest whereupon he encounters many mythical beasts. I don’t know, don’t ask me to totally figure it out (at least the prog nerds will no doubt eat up the storyline), and besides it’s the music that really matters, anyway. Musically, this album is a further progression in that the band is becoming increasingly diverse, with cleaner, more melodic vocals becoming even more commonplace in addition to mellower, more atmospheric musical asides. Of course, the album is still heavy with a capital H, though on the downside there's a bit too much aimless thrashing about and ugly screaming (mostly from Sanders the gruffer-voiced growler), plus there are some idiosyncratic production choices (Bayless again) that I don’t always appreciate (the annoying “Bladecatcher” and the buried vocals on “Pendulous Skin,” for example, though the latter’s soulful guitar work duly compensates. As per usual, Dailor is the standout musician but the whole band is mightily impressive, as their dense, complex, unique hybrid sound remains singularly powerful and compelling. Right now I’d list the explosive opener “The Wolf Is Loose,” the mellower, more atmospheric “Sleeping Giant,” the particularly accessible Josh Homme guested “Colony Of Birchmen,” and the aforementioned “Pendulous Skin” as highlights, but ask me tomorrow and maybe I’d go for some others (“Crystal Skull,” “Circle Of Cysquatch,” “Hunters Of The Sky,” and “Siberian Divide,” for example). In addition to Homme, Scott Kelly of Neurosis and Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta lend their vocal talents, as Mastodon further cemented their formidable reputation on the decidedly imperfect but imposing Blood Mountain.

Crack the Skye (Reprise '09) Rating: A+
To quote the great Pat Boone, I’ve been in a metal mood lately, and this is the best new heavy metal album I’ve heard in some time. Heck, it’s an instant classic/masterpiece and Mastodon’s best album yet. For one thing, Crack the Skye - dedicated to Dailor’s sister Skye who committed suicide at age 14 – is the band’s proggiest, most epic offering yet, with expansive songs that average 7-minutes in length (“The Czar” and “The Last Baron” clock in at 9:46 and 13:00, respectively). The band’s sound is more atmospheric and multi-dimensional (well-known producer Brendan O’Brien likely deserves some credit for this), and the often hooky, more nuanced vocals are much less of a weakness and are in fact a definite strength this time out. The guys (also including Dailor on “Oblivion” and Kelly again on the title track) are much more likely to affectingly sing (often in harmony) rather than harshly scream this time out, and this is also their guitar hero album, as many of these songs are climaxed by sensational guitar solos or feature rich guitar harmonies. For his part, Dailor is terrific as usual but also a bit more restrained because that’s what these slower, more psychedelic (and less hardcore), and consistently melodic and memorable (and still definitely groove-based) songs call for. Interestingly, this album completes a thematic cycle (Remission = fire, Leviathan = water, Blood Mountain = earth, Crack the Skye = sky), but as with Blood Mountain the actual synopsis of this album’s primary theme (yes it’s another concept album, something about a paraplegic and astral traveling) sounds rather ridiculous. But again, the lyrics on this album are really beside the point, because the music on Crack the Skye is consistently sensational (I therefore won’t bother naming highlights; just press play). Having closed this decade with such a smashing artistic success (I believe the album has been their best seller to date as well), it will be interesting to see if Mastodon can continue to progress and become one of the best bands around in the next decade as well.

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