“Mastodon, some say you have the momentum of a runaway freight train – why are you so popular?”
I’ve never had the pleasure of interviewing these guys, but that’s the kind of Dorothy Dixer I’d probably serve up to kick off the interview. Furthermore, I actually think it is a question worth exploring. And, in the absence of having done the hard yards to secure an interview, it’s a question I’ll attempt to answer myself.
Modern metal is a dense and complex web of subgenres, but somehow Mastodon seem to be across an incredibly diverse assortment of strands. OK, well I guess it’s time for a list:
- Given the clean, modern production values and technical precision in the drumming and guitar playing you might at first be forgiven for lumping Mastodon (especially early Mastodon) in with modern industrial thrash bands like Lamb Of God.
- The mathy progressions and rapidly changing time signatures and tempos call to mind the proggy experimentation of bands like Coroner or Meshuggah.
- They have the artistic tendencies and confidence of big arty bands like Tool.
- There are jarring vocals throughout (although less in later albums) and a doomy heaviness in some of the riffs that shows the influence of post-metal doomsters such as Isis, Pelican and Neurosis. And yes, Scott Kelly makes his now traditional guest appearance on this album.
As the band has grown and matured, and – here’s the thing – especially on this album, they have brought in more and more influences from outside of metal. Another list? OK then!:
- The ooh-ahhh vocal harmonies employed by Josh Homme and Queens Of The Stone Age are evident at times throughout, especially on Dry Bone Valley – one of my favourites (take that Pitchfork!).
- The swampy dirge called Creature Lives could just as easily have been written by the Melvins. By the way, that’s a compliment not a criticism. From the freaky electronica of the intro to the doleful, marching main section, it’s a real standout.
- There’s a Torche influence at times too I reckon. Blasteroid, for example, really reminded of one of those faster, rockier tracks off Meanderthal.
- Some songs have some real jazzy stuff in them. Some of the bass lines get pretty damn jazzy, for example. The song Octopus Has No Friends was apparently so named because it sounds like you’d need eight arms to play it. There’s syncopation and even swing in the drumming too.
- The guitarist brings in a bit of a country banjo twang into some of his playing. The guitar strings have always had a really steely ring to them which really lends itself to that fast picking style.
Here’s an interview on Consequence of Sound where bassist Troy Sanders talks about the wide range of influences on display in this album, including his love of both country AND western music. Have a read if you like.
And while I’m linking to stuff, here’s a clip of them playing Curl of the Burl on Letterman. Yep, Letterman. I’m including it here not just because it’s so cool to see a band like this is blasting the heads off an unsuspecting studio audience, but also because it will give you idea of how they share the vocals between the band, with the smoother-larynxed bassist taking the chorus, and the vocal contributions of the drummer allowing for some nice three-way harmonies.
My favourite track is Stargasm. It’s got that same space and the crushing crescendos we saw in Sleeping Giant on 2006’s Blood Mountain. But every review I’ve read nominates a different song as their favourite. I get the feeling it will be one of those albums where you gradually develop new favourites as you come to notice some of the intricacies of the less-instantly-catchy tracks.
I won’t bore you with any more track by track analysis – you can have fun doing this yourself when you buy it (if you haven’t already).
But I will say that there is so much variety from track to track that each song is memorable in its own way. There are still chops galore, but it’s never gratuitous or overdone, and each part of every song fits neatly together. Where they might have gone through some intricate transition within one of their long songs on their previous albums, here they just end the song and start another.
I know I’ve been gushing a little, but dammit I can’t help it. It’s just so refreshing that a band has taken all these great influences, including so many of the ones you’re likely to read about on this blog (i.e. my favourites), and applied their considerable artistry as well as all of the modern music production technology and expertise they could muster to create this set of awesome metal songs.
It’s frikking sweet.