Mastodon have a long and rather complicated history, and it’s been a real treat to witness their constant and unpredictable evolution first hand. I’ll be totally frank here – I got on board with Remission and saw them support High On Fire live in Boston on that tour. Excellent drumming first and foremost, good riffs, and a sweet live show, I’ll give them that. Yet I was never totally on board. As much as some people love to tout that album as some sort of high point for the band, I see it as a fledgling band flexing their muscles, yet still looking for a focus. Sure, the drumming is nothing short of astounding, practically a non-stop jazz drum fill by modern legend Brann Daylor. The guitar interplay was equally impressive, mixing devastating down-tuned riffing with complicated, labyrinthine passages of dueling melodies and harmonies. Still, for me, much of it sounded one dimensional. A constant drum fill gets old when it doesn’t have enough groove to offset it, the vocals were largely mono-tonal, and the songwriting didn’t always stick for me. An impressive debut for sure, and for all the listens I’ve given that album, I can only remember how two songs on the album actually go. It lacked hooks for me, it just wasn’t catchy enough.
That’s where Leviathan came in, where the band was able to balance the drumming, work some melody into the vocals, and hone the songwriting to mix their more proggy elements with legitimately catchy choruses. Looking back, I like this album best, as do many other fans. It was a rough road ahead from there, filled with major label contracts, near ceaseless touring, and more experimentation in the songwriting department. Blood Mountain had its moments, though it lacked coherency and was generally all over the place. Despite this, it earned them new fans and brought their music to a larger crowd. This brings us up to Crack The Skye, a rather contentious album in their catalog, especially for me. I will state up front, I do not like Brendan O’Brien as a producer. He has a tendency to take guitar-heavy bands and totally neuter the guitars in favor of a radio-friendly wax job. Do you remember the vast contrast between Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Superunknown?? Sure, both are great albums with great songs, though listen to the difference in how the guitars sound, and where they are in the mix.
O’Brien did the same thing with Mastodon, and I initially didn’t like Cracke The Sky. I saw them on this tour. Live, it came across much more powerfully; it was thick and commanding. Guitarist/singer Brent Hines was sighted pissing on parked cars outside of Fenway Park afterwards, so you know that he felt good about the performance. I’m digressing a bit. My point is that the material was strong, the concept was there, and though they’d incorporate more melodies and even fairly impressive three part harmonies into the overall fold, I don’t think the vocals were strong enough to be placed that far in the forefront of the mix….which is exactly what O’Brien does. However, I have to hand it to O’Brien on Emperor Of Sand – there’s a nice balance to the harmonized vocals and the weighty guitars, they’ve still got some rawness and bite.
At this point, I’m kind of at a loss as to what to write, and more importantly, what not to write about Mastodon. I’ve had a long personal history with the band, having seen them multiple times, sometimes good and sometimes not. I’ve played with them, which was….special. I have heard stories from mutual acquaintances that have toured with them. There’s plenty of personal anecdotes I could write about that would paint them in a rather unflattering light, and as interesting as that would be, as we love to watch train wrecks here in the United States, thus our current political makeup. I could write 100 pages on the things I’ve witnessed and the things I’ve heard about the band. However, do I really need to go there and be an asshole?? No. That’s one of the other problems with our current political makeup – where is the line between “free speech” and just being a disrespectful asshole?? Most of us know by now that Brent Hinds is a total wildman who says and does some crazy pants things, and the other members of the band have had their own struggles. Let’s just focus on the struggles that are relevant to the music itself rather than the gossip, shall we?
I think the most important struggles have been how the members of Mastodon have processed deaths of family members. This is the second death of a loved one that has led to a concept album, with the first being Crack The Skye. To me, that’s what art is really about, and I’ll give them all sorts of kudos for channeling that kind of sadness and loss into creative, poignant and powerful works of art that explore the nature of being an authentic human. Emperor Of Sand indeed has an intriguing concept, though I’d need many, many more listens with it to fully unravel the meanings and personal connections. For the record, I’ve already listened to the album more than thirty times. It’s very dense conceptually, in terms of both the music itself and the lyrical content.
Another thing I really like about the album is how it combines the rock oriented songwriting of their two prior albums with the conceptual and progressive tendencies of their earlier works. The album is really top-loaded with the more straightforward, catchy tunes like “Show Yourself”, which almost sounds like a Queens Of The Stone Age outtake from Songs For The Deaf. The first few songs are definitely the rockers, while as the album deepens, the more progressive elements begin to dominate – the synthesizers, the odd time signatures, the mathy riffs, and the epic finale “Jaguar God.” I like this a lot about the album, how its paced and structured. There are a few things that I do not like. I’m feeling annoyed about their continued reliance on guest musicians, especially how it feels like they over-utilize Scott Kelly. I love Neurosis and all, and seriously….does he have to be a guest on EVERY album?? It’s become quite an old shtick at this point.
Much like everything the band has done, this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s sometimes tough for an established and successful band to do so. Fans always want to hear something “more like the old stuff”, and yet, when a band just regurgitates the same album over and over, fans tend to tire of that as well. It’s like Bob Marley said, “you can please some people sometimes, but you can’t please all the people all the time.” Quoted for truth. I tend to respect artists like David Bowie, Lou Reed, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Smashing Pumpkins, artists who deliberately try to redefine themselves with each recording. I think that the most important people one can please with a release is themselves, accomplish that and the rest will follow.