Not since the glory days of the 1980s has American metal been as poised to take off into such heady new territory as it is now, thanks in large part to Atlanta quartet Mastodon, who over the course of the past five years, has proceeded to distinguish itself from the countless other bands riding the current wave of Stateside extreme music. Oldsters might be reluctant to admit it, and scenesters might scoff, but the similarities between Metallica circa 1986 and Mastodon today are undeniable. Both bands created unique musical hybrids that were unequaled at the time: Mastodon combined New Orleans sludge (Eyehategod, Crowbar) with the intricacy of death metal, the melodies of power metal, and the unpredictability of ‘70s progressive rock. Like Metallica, Mastodon released an attention-grabbing debut album (Remission, 2002) that immediately established them as forces in the genre, only to follow it up with a stunner of a second full-length (2004’s Leviathan) that had critics’ tongues wagging and audiences’ heads turning. And like the ‘80s metal legends 20 years ago, Mastodon is on the cusp of something huge, with a hotly anticipated CD, their first for Warner Brothers, which threatens to turn metal on its ear and bring another underground sound to the mainstream in the process.
Whether or not Blood Mountain can make a similar commercial impact remains to be seen, but Mastodon has certainly held up its end of the bargain, releasing the most uncompromising major label debut by an American metal band since Metallica’s Master of Puppets and Slayer’s Reign in Blood two decades ago. Produced by Matt Bayles, album number three continues down the same labyrinthine roads that Leviathan traveled, only now the twists and turns are far more frequent, the band’s dizzying array of time signature changes cementing Mastodon’s reputation as one of the most distinct bands in the genre. But for all the cutting-edge touches, much of the music’s charm lies in its more traditional qualities.
Fantasy has always been a key characteristic of heavy metal, and whether or not a listener buys into the fantasy element of metal is often the dividing line between indifference and devoted fandom, and in recent years Mastodon has made singing about mythological and fictional characters cool again. Blood Mountain is rife with fantastical imagery; a concept album centered around a protagonist who must ascend a living, breathing mountain to obtain a crystal skull to achieve enlightenment, the tale involves shapeshifters, sleeping giants, a one-eyed beast called a Cysquatch, half-human trees, and an Ice God among many other creatures. That the story can be viewed metaphorically (the band’s struggle to succeed, Warner being the mountain, for instance) and that the album continues in the same elemental vein as the fire-obsessed Remission and the aquatic-themed, Moby Dick inspired Leviathan (Earth being the dominant theme here), gives the album even more depth, but let’s face it, for all the overanalyzing, one-eyed sasquatches are just plain cool.
Musically, the foursome has never sounded as tight as they do on the new disc, but their technical skill never overwhelms the songwriting, the compositions complex, but never meandering. Bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds have formed a highly unique vocal duo that has only become more nuanced on Blood Mountain, Sanders’s robust growls offset by Hinds’s more enigmatic singing style. Hinds and Bill Kelliher display mind-boggling proficiency on guitar, shifting from classic dual guitar harmonies, to hardcore dissonance, to crushing stoner/doom metal riffs, tossing in such styles as jazz and Southern rock along the way. Drummer Brann Dailor, though, ties together this eclectic sound with an astonishing performance, mixing the lithe, punctuating fills of jazz drumming with the cathartic power of extreme metal, something we hear instantly on the opening track “The Wolf is Loose”, a raging thrasher driven by Dailor’s double-time beats, clanging ride cymbal, and multi-limbed tom fills.
Both “The Wolf is Loose” and the swaggering, monstrously heavy “Crystal Skull” settle in quickly, the two songs sounding comfortably Mastodonian, but we’re not seven minutes into the album when the rug is yanked from under our feet, first with the hypnotic “Sleeping Giant”, a majestic five and a half minute suite that borders on Opeth-like, highlighted by Hinds’s cleanly sung vocals, and then with the frantic “Capillarian Crest”, which flies in the complete opposite direction, a herky-jerky composition that sounds like King Crimson re-interpreting Rush’s “YYZ” before climaxing in a burst of visceral power. After that, they own us, and all we can do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
“Circle of the Cysquatch” is centered on a memorable, skittering guitar melody, the song filled with indelible primitive imagery as it takes a turn for the darker during its second half. “Colony of Birchmen” slithers along, Hinds and Kelliher serving up a disjointed power metal riff as guest vocalist Josh Homme contributes memorable backing vocals during the otherworldly chorus. “Hunters of the Sky” is dominated by one of Sanders’s finest vocal efforts to date, the schizophrenic “This Mortal Soil” goes through five or six different movements in five minutes, highlighted by a gorgeous, minute-long intro, and “Siberian Divide” (with the Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala guesting this time) careens to a dramatic climax thanks to a riveting coda.
As they’ve shown in the past with “Elephant Man” and “Joseph Merrick”, Mastodon are no slouches when it comes to instrumentals, and the two on Blood Mountain could not be more different, but are equally enthralling. The closing track “Pendulous Skin” has a lazy country jam feel, dominated by acoustic guitar, organ, and slurred, indecipherable vocals as Hinds lets loose a lovely extended electric solo. “Bladecatcher”, on the other hand, is pure insanity, the band exploding into grindcore-like bursts in between mellifluous harmonies by Hinds and Kelliher that border on jazz fusion.
With Blood Mountain, Mastodon have completed a three-album arc that most young bands can only dream of, culminating in a record that’s as thrilling as it is multifaceted, as melodic as it is bludgeoning, and with a major label giving the band complete artistic control, allowing them the freedom to go at their own speed (which is often full throttle), they’ve flourished, having subsequently reached their own artistic summit. Where to go next is a significant question (“Keep climbing!” as Gary Snyder once said), but for now, there’s no better thing to do than to stand proudly, and admire the view.