The Freelance Mentalists.
Thursday, February 22, 2007

Atlanta-based Mastodon, polymathic rawkissers of rippling thud, and formerly the hardest-touring, biggest-selling band on indie metal's highly esteemed Relapse Records, made their major label debut in September '06, with the Warner Brothers release of Blood Mountain. Ensuing online discussion topics, pro and con, will be dealt with in the following manner:

1. "Mastodon Are Mainstream Metal Wannabees." Wrong, they already were mainstream, and no wannabees. At least, to a non-specialist hard rock fan, it seems like all the bands on the "edge" (on Relapse, especially) are the default mainstream of metal. These are the acts who sustain interest and success, via die-hard fans, as CD sales and big-ticket tours continue to die. (Are you going to see Van Halen with your uncle? Again?) If you count only who's on the top of the charts, notice that Iron Maiden made the Top Ten this fall, and Slayer made the Top Five. Maiden's purple mulch, Slayer's rainshark riffage, and both bands' unabashed bashing, are obvious (early) inspirations to Mastodon and their colleagues. Which leads to...

2. "Mastodon are Metallica '86." See 1. No Hollyweird Hair Metalneck overground to rise above, from their San Francisco clubfringe exile. And no Eurometal mail-order-only darkness to enlighten the starved masses with, not when downloads are spilling out of every home, school, and library screen. Also,Mastodon are very old, unlike Metallica in '86.

Yes, and if we must talk about "the edge," Mastodon, in their mid-thirties, are now touring more than ever, away from their wives and kids more than ever, and were recently reported as saying they still hadn't seen any big paychecks. Despite adapting to the pressure, Mastodon refuse, so far, to rehash their influences, nor do they take any other conventionally mainstream approach. They don't write about girlfriends and parents or children or parents or drugs or The Road, unless these are red bulls and striding behemoths on 2002's Remission; tales of Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, Thor, and lava lovers on 2004's Leviathan; not to mention birchmen, sleeping giants, crystal skulls, Cysquatch (child of Sasquatch and the Cyclops), and mortal soil, on 2006's Blood Mountain. They also don't have a dominant-to-domineering lead singer (speaking of Metallica). They all four sing "lead," exchanging imagery like they do instrumental vignettes, getting better with each album, and, on Blood Mountain, guest vocals (and lyrics) of Neurosis' Scott Kelly fit in seamlessly, as do the distinctive intonations of Queens Of The Stone Age's Josh Homme and The Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala.

3. "Mastodon's got the Ironic Metal Hipsters flocking in, stinking up the joint." Not like True Heads of Metal can't be hipsters, in the sardonically askance sense, and the ones who try to take metal "tropes" utterly seriously, and/or begrudge all outsiders any degree of askance (or study, or credulousness, for that matter), well. Irony, and whatever else you want to call the degree of distance necessary to get perspective (so that you don't confuse it with sarcasm or piety either), not only can co-exist with seemingly unmediated response, it can be a part of that response. The ultravividness of true starpower passes right through caricature (for light years, is the idea, and crying all the way to the bank, etc.) See Bob Dylan, Madonna, Axl Rose, Britney Spears, and many other politicial figures.

4."Mastodon's also got all the other indie rock people flocking in, trending away from acid folk." Maybe, but Mastodon are true indie rock people, commitment-wise. Also, Mastodon's lyrics are ultravividly multi-faceted: meant to be open to different interpetations, despite committment and other consistencies, like critters--all of that as any acid folk could hope to be. And acid folk is another side of prog, and Mastodon are into prog. When drummer Bram Dailor sings about a "labyrinth" in Blood Mountain's "Circle Sasquatch," he sounds like he's calling through the labyrinthine curvature of a vibrantly metallic mask, which is appropriate to all of Mastodon's words and music. (Not that they, especially with Dailor, can't swing like a wrecking ball.) Prog can be about rigor, not rigidity, getting in shape to go exploring, not just getting in shape. Nor do they settle for man vs. nature triumphalism, or man vs. nature rise & fall, even. It's man in nature, and vice versa, but especially striking is the former, like on Leviathan, when submission to Ahab is calculated, even with the beatdowns, there's a sense of direction, and even Ahab's trying to calculate how far he can get, into the blowhole of creation. Later that same voyage, it seems that getting thrown into a volcano can also be a crewman's opportunity (an ultimate entry-level gig). No matter how far they get, the albums always end with contemplation of something elsewhere. With instrumentals: Remission 's "Elephant Man," Leviathan's "Joseph Merrick" (AKA the real-life, thoughtful Elephant Man), and, best of all, Blood Mountain's "Pendulous Skin," which would be a good description of the Elephant Man. Or it could be the guy from the previous song, "Siberian Divide," so cold, hallucinatory, and plain hungry that he tried to eat himself. He could now be "Pendulous," being both gnawed and thawed. But he's here, and sounds happy: one of the Mastodons is singing along, down among the instruments, "Now that I've begun…" Don Allred


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