On January 1, 2000, Bill Kelliher and Brann Dailor, friends since adolescence and musical collaborators first in death metal act Lethargy then noise rock heroes Today Is The Day, left their hometown of Rochester, New York in search of new adventures in Atlanta, Georgia. Three months later, at a High On Fire show in a punk rock squat in the city, the duo met guitarist Brent Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders, and arranged to meet later in the week for a jam. Hinds showed up drunk, and insisted upon playing just one note throughout the entire session, but all four musicians liked what they were hearing. And thus the most forward-thinking and idiosyncratic metal band of the third millennium was born. Across seven singular albums, from 2002’s Remission to the forthcoming Emperor of Sand, set for release on March 31, Mastodon have consistently raised the bar for modern metal, and revolutionised the genre in the process. Here are 17 ways in which they’ve changed the game…
1. THEY MADE CONCEPT ALBUMS COOL AGAIN
Don’t get us wrong, concept albums are always cool, but since the glorious late ’80s heyday of Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, King Diamond’s Abigail and Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime, the notion of fantastical, wildly inventive stories being spun across two sides of black vinyl had become marginalised, and largely the preserve of power metal/death metal bands. That changed with Leviathan, Mastodon’s masterful 2004 re-imagining of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, an album with such broad appeal that it was voted Album of the Year by both Kerrang! and Terrorizer. They’d go even deeper and darker with Blood Mountain (2006), Crack The Skye (2009) and Emperor of Sand (2017), but Leviathan is already firmly in the all-time classic bracket.
2. THEY PUT THEIR DRUMMER FRONT AND CENTRE
Behind every great rock band there’s a great drummer, but with the obvious exception of a certain much-put-upon motormouth Dane, few drummers actually lead their bands. In Brann Dailor however, Mastodon have a world class drummer and creative mastermind who not only writes lyrics and riffs and authors album and video concepts, but actually takes on lead vocals too. The drummer jokes stop right here.
3. TWO WORDS: PAUL ROMANO
There’s a school of thought that argues that in the digital age not only has music become more disposable, but that album artwork too is a dying art too. Paul Romano‘s work with Mastodon is living, breathing proof that this is nonsense. The Philadelphia-based artist’s work with Mastodon is bold, brilliant and breath-taking, conjuring up an alternate universe peopled with otherworldly beasts and freakish characters who draw the listener into the dark heart of the albums. Romano has worked with a host of bands from Trivium to Godflesh, emerging as one of the most distinctive artistic ‘voices’ in contemporary metal, but it’s with Mastodon that his canvases are most truly alive.
4. TWO MORE WORDS: BLOOD AND THUNDER
Is that three words, technically? Whatever, sue us. Is there a more stunning example of 21st-century metal than the opening track on Leviathan? That riff! That opening lyric: ‘I think that someone is trying to kill me.’ Those drum fills. Throw in a chorus cameo from the mighty Neil Fallon and a demented and frankly terrifying clown-based video and you’ve got an anthem that steps up to every other metal act and screams ‘You want some?’
5. THEY’RE SINGLEHANDEDLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CREATION OF THE FEARSOME ‘SPACE OWL’.
Metal loves its fantastic beasts, mythical creatures who strike terror into the hearts of man, whether that be Sabbath’s Iron Man, Priest’s Sentinel or indeed Mastodon’s own Cysquatch, the half-Cyclops, half-Sasquatch entity celebrated on the Blood Mountain album. But all must tremble before the mighty Space Owl, the red-eyed, laser-firing, cat-frightening terror who dominates the ‘Don’s merch range. Now if only they’d get an animatronics wizard to breathe life into the beast for live shows…
6. THEY TURNED ‘THE MAD MONK’ INTO A HEAVY METAL HERO
Buried with the labyrinthine twists and turns of Crack The Skye, is the story of Grigory Rasputin, holy man, mystic, sex guru and confidante to Tsar Nicholas II, a character whose reputation grew so fearsome that, in their attempts to assassinate him, his enemies not only poisoned and shot him, but beat him up, bound him and threw him in a freezing river for good measure. Thanks to Mastodon, ‘The Mad Monk’ is now part of metal culture, reclaimed from the clutches of Boney M. Hurrah!
7. THEY’RE SECURE ENOUGH TO LET ONE ANOTHER RUN FREE WITH OTHER MUSICIANS
Remember when James Hetfield kicked Jason Newsted to the kerb for having the temerity to suggest that perhaps, maybe, possibly he might like to make music outside Metallica? Well, Mastodon have no such control freak hang-ups. Whether it’s Troy Sanders working with Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato and Max Cavalera in Killer Be Killed, Brent Hinds getting weird with DEP’s Ben Weinman and Alice in Chains man William Duvall in Giraffe Tongue Orchestra or any of the numerous other side projects the band have indulged in, here’s a band who prove that trusting your brothers-in-metal pays dividends artistically for everyone in the long run.
8. THEY’RE METAL’S TRUE MASTERS OF PUPPETS
Mastodon videos are always a little unsettling, and truly no band has done more to turn happy childhood memories into violent, vicious, nightmares. The feral felines at the heart of the Asleep In The Deep promo are bad enough, but top billing here must go to the absolute savages who maim, munch and massacre their way through the band’s Deathbound video. If you can watch the little blue furry fella eat himself rather than foul prey to predators without shedding a tear you’re almost certainly a serial killer in the making.
9. BRENT HINDS LOVES REPPING FRANK ZAPPA AND TOM WAITS
Brent Hinds may have been misquoted when various metal media outlets went gaga over a story that claimed he said ‘I fucking hate heavy metal’ but there’s no doubt that the mercurial, maverick guitarist draws his influences from different wells than most of his peers. You won’t find Hinds obsessing over Sad Wings of Destiny or Diary of a Madman, but get him on the subject of Frank Zappa or Tom Waits and Hinds will cheerfully talk both your ears off.
10. THEY INTRODUCED TWERKING INTO METAL
Okay, now this one is rather contentious. With the release of the once seen, never forgotten video for The Motherload, Mastodon opened a can of worms, with various commentators accusing the band of sexism, cultural appropriation and a host of other crimes against taste and decency. That the video might have been a sly, satirical at contemporary musical industry tropes from a band who’re so far above bog-standard heavy metal clichés seems to have been overlooked in the predictable rush to OUTRAGE!!!!
11. THEY PUT LOVE FOR FAMILY AT THE CORE OF THEIR ART
Metal has always been about rebellion, about rejecting authority and control, but where so many bands have railed against oppressive familial upbringings (think Metallica’s Dyers Eve for one particularly scalding example) Mastodon have placed love of family at the very heart of their art. Crack The Skye is dedicated to Brann Dailor’s sister, who committed suicide as a teenager, The Hunter is titled in tribute to Brent Hinds’ brother, who passed away during the recording of the album, and Emperor of Sand is dedicated to the memory of Bill Kelliher’s mother.
12. THEY’RE SAYING ‘FUCK YOU’ TO CANCER
Lemmy. Ronnie James Dio. Chuck Schuldiner. Cancer has taken some of the greatest, most iconic metal talents from us, and frankly, it’s about time we started fighting back. On a surface reading, Mastodon’s Emperor of Sand album is a warped fable about a character trying to out-run a death sentence handed down by a tyrannical Sultan, but the real story it tells is of the band’s loved ones battling against the brutal disease.
13. THEY’RE GIVING BACK TO THE ARTISTIC COMMUNITY WHICH NURTURED THEM
For all its lip service to community and ‘famileeeeeeeh’ (copyright James Hetfield), the metal world can be dog-eat-dog. Mastodon, however, are putting their money where their mouths are, by investing in a state of the art rehearsal space/recording studio/art space in their hometown. Named Ember City, in tribute to one of the highpoints of the Once More ‘Round The Sun album, Bill Kelliher says that the building will be “a haven not just for musicians, but for any type of artist who requires a studio space for their chosen medium, whether its music, ceramics, painting, etc.” Respect.
14. THEY’RE WHOLLY UNAFRAID OF BLURRING GENDER LINES
We’re not saying all metal bands feel compelled to wear furry loincloths and carry broadswords, but undeniably there’s a strong strain of machismo running through much of the music that we hold dear. Mastodon however, are entirely happy to fuck with preconceptions, which is why, in the striking video for fellow Atlantans The Coathangers’ Follow Me, the quartet can be spotted playing an all-female band. They’ve never looked more adorable.
15. THEY’RE INTRODUCING A 13 STRING GUITAR INTO METAL!
Now this, surely, no-one can take issue with. Six strings are great, 12 strings sometimes even better, provided they’re in the hands of Jimmy Page, but 13 strings surely offer whole new realms of possibilities, so imagine our excitement when we saw Brent Hinds posting a pic of his new pedal steel on Instagram. Shit is about to get very interesting indeed…
16. THEY LAUGH IN THE FACE OF DEATH
Death is everywhere in heavy metal, an omnipotent, stalking, terrifying presence ready to tear lives asunder. But what if even Death has an off-day? This is the thought-provoking premise behind the new Mastodon video for Show Yourself, a clip which will make every self-respecting metalhead want to throw an arm around Death’s bony shoulders and tell the old bugger he should have a nice lie-down now and again. Granted Death has the last laugh here, but isn’t that always the way?
17. THEY’RE THE FIRST METAL BAND TO HAVE RECORDED INSIDE THE MOON
Okay, we’ll level with you, we have a sneaking suspicion that this may not be strictly true. But Brent Hinds swears this is where he tracked his guitar parts during the making of Emperor of Sand – see video – and if there’s one valuable lesson we’ve learned in life, it’s ‘Don’t pick arguments with men with tattooed faces…’
Words: Paul Brannigan
Mastodon’s new album ‘Emperor of Sand’ is out March 31st via Warner Brothers Records. Click here for more info.