Mastodon’s 2002 album Remission was the kind of debut release that every band dreams of pulling off, one that grabbed people’s attention immediately, one that, upon hearing the first few bars of the first track, showed the world that they actually had something new to offer. Living up to their moniker, Mastodon sounded massive, beastly, downright unstoppable, as the Atlanta, Georgia quartet combined the Southern-fried heavy rock of Clutch and Eyehategod with the technical proficiency and hardcore elements of The Dillinger Escape Plan. Every bit as ground-rattling as Dillinger’s debut Calculating Infinity, Remission was a supremely confident piece of work, both accessible and creative, bolstered by such instant classics as “March of the Fire Ants”, “Where Strides the Behemoth”, and “Ol’e Nessie”. When it comes to following up a highly acclaimed first album, it’s always tough, but in metal circles, it’s even worse, as fans are often so fiercely set in their ways, that any change from the established formula, in their eyes, is often disastrous.
Well, Mastodon have indeed decided to change things considerably on their second album, Leviathan, and that change is not only for the better, but positively thrilling. To put it bluntly, Mastodon have turned down the sludge, and turned up the prog. Way up. Those Sabbath-style riffs are still present at times, but the emphasis this time around is on tightly-executed, progressive metal passages that harken back to Metallica’s glory days in the late ‘80s, and going even further back, Rush’s great late ‘70s/early ‘80s output. That shift in style hits you two seconds into the opener “Blood and Thunder”: recorded and mixed once again by Matt Bayles, the guitar riffs by Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds are cleaner, crisper than we’re used to, evoking memories of a similar sound on Metallica’s ...And Justice For All. When bassist Troy Sanders and drummer Brann Dailor join in, the massive force in the music is still there, but there’s now a willingness to see how far they can go with this sound. On the album, you get sudden dual guitar flourishes, abrupt time signature changes (but nowhere near as abrupt as that of The Dillinger Escape Plan and Meshuggah), and most impressively, an outstanding performance by Dailor on the skins, who seems to channel the power of Brant Bjork and the precision of Neil Peart. All the while, the band’s dual vocal team of Sanders and guitarist Hines growl and bellow over the tight-as-a-noose arrangements, not in a the usual extreme way that we’ve grown accustomed to over the last decade, but similar to that of the two singers in Neurosis.
You certainly don’t need to be a university English major to be able to tell from the album’s cover artwork that there’s a certain nautical theme to Leviathan, more specifically, the classic Herman Melville novel Moby Dick. While it’s not a rock opera in the least, most of the songs refer to the book, its characters, and its plotline, and the ones that don’t, still have a bit of a seafaring tone to the lyrics as well, as “Island” delves into Norse mythology, and “Megalodon” refers to the prehistoric sea beast. This return to the fantasy storylines of 80s metal is especially refreshing today, amidst all the more blunt, depressing themes we get from metal bands these days.
The album overflows with stellar tracks, such as the deliciously bombastic “Blood and Thunder” and “I Am Ahab”, which, thanks to their simpler, more immediate arrangements, get the listener settled before the real fun begins. The chuggin’ “Megalodon” is brilliant, a great example of how the band throws in different little sounds, seemingly arbitrarily, but it’s done so effortlessly, it all works; at one point between a midtempo verse and a more thrash metal section, the band connects the two with an extremely brief interlude of, of all things, a classic, Southern rock lick, straight outa Skynyrd, something sure to evoke sudden responses of, “What the hell was that?” The album comes to a mesmerizing climax on the nearly 14-minute epic “Hearts Alive”, a song that will is guaranteed to wow anyone who grew up during the glory days of progressive metal 20 years ago. Take all the heaviest elements of Rush’s Moving Pictures, the storytelling skill of Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (the song chronicles Moby Dick‘s climactic scene), and throw in those ever-reliable Southern influences, and you’ve got an expertly-executed prog metal opus, one that never gets boring, with surprises lurking around every corner. It’s exhilarating to hear heavy metal played with such crisp, melodic precision as the band does here.
Following the example of Remission‘s “The Elephant Man”, Leviathan concludes with the instrumental “Joseph Merrick”, with its gentle, acoustic guitar tones, organ, and heavily distorted, almost underwater-sounding, guitar solo. It’s been quite a while since we’ve heard from a metal band who could not only put out great albums, but manage to grow leaps and bounds every time out, and at the rate Mastodon is going, we’re on the verge of something very special here. Yet another high point of what is truly a stellar year for heavy metal, Leviathan is the perfect sophomore effort, endlessly creative, virtuosic, and exciting from start to finish.