There are few certainties in life other than death, taxes and Mastodon’s unfailing ability to turn a simple heavy metal song into the stuff of epic lore. Since their founding 20 years ago, the Atlanta sludge metal titans have built their career on songs that are big on concept and even bigger on riffs. And over the years the narratives within their songs have only grown more elaborate and otherworldly, from the harrowing ascent of Blood Mountain to encounters with Rasputin on the astral plane. Whether at the height of their prog-rock ambition or simply pairing some heavy rock ‘n’ roll with supernatural plot lines, Mastodon have proven themselves masters of charting an epic quest.
With the recent release of the group’s Medium Rarities, the time seemed ripe to once and for all rank those quests on the basis of how epic they truly are. Let’s get ready to outrun some lava, do battle with beasts and look deities square in the eye.
10. “Deep Sea Creature”
Mastodon’s earliest tracks didn’t possess the extensive conceptual threads that their later works did, though there’s still a hint of the literary seafaring yarns of 2004’s Leviathan on this standout from their 2001 “Slick Leg” 7-inch. Built on a complex and knotty math-metal sound, “Deep Sea Creature” shows only flashes of a struggle with the titular creature, but the bellows of “I’ve seen things you’ve never heard before” speak volumes.
Despite arguably being Mastodon’s most straightforward hard rock album—which, for the record, is in no way a bad thing—2011’s The Hunter contains some of the group’s most far-out psychedelic lyrical visions. “Spectrelight” is all stoner-rock riffs and meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll attitude, but lyrically the band goes well beyond the realm of Flying Vs and Marshall stacks. Rather, “Spectrelight” is a weird, metaphysical journey beyond the realm of the living, in which Troy Sanders narrates a trek “into the spectrelight/into the afterlife.” The true journey might literally be one that requires chemical enhancement, but Neurosis’ Scott Kelly provides an anchor to ground you on this cosmic trip, with encouraging words like “believe the dream, trust your own truth.
8. “Jaguar God”
Mastodon mostly abandoned the man vs. the elements theme on 2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun, temporarily casting aside prog rock’s tendencies toward concept while increasingly embracing the sound and structures of prog. Yet three years later, the group built an elaborate album-length thread about someone’s final descent into death and the afterlife on Emperor of Sand, which culminates on the sprawling closer “Jaguar God.” Initially a gentler folk-tinged ballad with introspective reflections from Brent Hinds, “Jaguar God” opens up into a massive heavy metal ripper that follows the narrator through his encounter with an Aztec god and eventual sacrifice from high up on a temple. With “terrestrial fire ascending from underground” and “smoking mirrors/black obsidian,” it’s an intense yet curiously adventurous depiction of death.
7. “Dry Bone Valley”
Arguably the best song on The Hunter found drummer Brann Dailor taking up lead vocals. Its grungy, hook-laden sound shares more than a little in common with Alice in Chains at their best, but at heart it remains a prime example of how epic the scope of a Mastodon song is even when streamlined and given a lighters-in-the-air chorus. Dailor drops the listener into the action from the start, with his “head down, running from the beast,” and the action only intensifies from there. Essentially, it’s a running of the gauntlet through the titular Dry Bone Valley, a fight for survival where “bulls roar loud, snakes move past my feet.” The terrain is perilous, but the narrator is determined to make it out alive: “I want to keep on breathing.”
6. “Hearts Alive”
The entirety of 2004’s Leviathan is a vivid retelling of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, making the album essentially one lengthy quest of its own. Yet within the extended narrative there are moments of soaring climax, like the penultimate, whale-sized track, “Hearts Alive.” Depicting the moment where Captain Ahab’s hubris finally brings about his downfall, the track follows the ill-fated seaman on his descent into the ocean with the white whale that so consumes him. Troy Sanders’ depiction of the whale is appropriately beastly (“Flame from mouth, smoke he breathes/enter the caverns of the deep”), but it’s the sheer ambition behind the song that makes Ahab’s last stand feel so mythical.
5. “The Czar”
Nearly 11 minutes long and somehow still only the second longest track on 2009’s Crack the Skye, “The Czar” is a colossal piece of prog-metal storytelling. Split into four parts—“Usurper,” “Escape,” the instrumental “Martyr” and finally “Spiral”—“The Czar” reaches back into the history of imperial Russia and Rasputin’s attempt to usurp Tsar Nicholas II’s throne, as well as his eventual death (which students of history will note actually took a few tries). Yet much like the other psychedelic, cosmic excursions of Crack the Skye, this ambitious track ends with a transcendent metaphysical vision: “I see your face in constellations/The martyr is ending his life for mine”
4. “Circle of Cysquatch”
Aside from having one of the best opening riffs of any song on Blood Mountain, “Circle of Cysquatch” is the moment where the danger and intensity of the storyline on Blood Mountain reaches a boiling point. As the title indicates, the protagonist finds himself surrounded by a horde of one-eyed man-beasts, described as “A race of one-eyed beings/All feared and shunned” and “Rakshasa demons,” in reference to creatures from Hindu mythology. And yet, this isn’t the only fearsome creature to be found on Blood Mountain, as drummer Brann Dailor sings, “Beware the birchmen.” The plot thickens…
3. “The Last Baron”
The companion epic on Crack the Skye to centerpiece “The Czar,” closing dirge “The Last Baron” is one of the longest pieces in the entire Mastodon catalog. Throughout its 13 minutes, the band soars into psychedelic prog-rock territory, showcasing at once their knack for melancholic melody and ambitious, precisely constructed showpieces. Naturally, “The Last Baron” has a pretty heady storyline to match, wrapping up the album’s overarching concept of a paraplegic protagonist on an astral projection quest with a perilous brush with death as the central character has spent too much time outside of his own body. He finds a guide in Rasputin, who appears earlier on in the album, to bring him back to his body and the earth: “All that I need is this wise man’s staff/Encased in crystal he leads the way.” Though the song ends with some ambiguity in terms of how the story ends, the final track on Crack the Skye is nothing short of transcendent.
2. “Sleeping Giant”
With 2006’s Blood Mountain, Mastodon crafted an album-length narrative of crystal-skull collecting and beast-fighting that seemed at times almost like a spirited game of Dungeons & Dragons or a heavy metal version of Clash of the Titans. Yet it’s also one of the rare Mastodon albums to not be anchored by a colossal 7- to 10-minute dirge where all of the album’s concepts converge into a sidelong feat of artistic heroism. That being said, the five and a half minutes of “Sleeping Giant” is about as epic as it gets, a soaring progressive-metal composition that presents a pivotal moment in the Blood Mountain storyline—where, uh oh, it turns out Blood Mountain is a volcano! “Earth has burst, mountain flames,” sings Brent Hinds in the opening couplet before the tale of survival that unfolds. That it’s only the third song on the album only shows just how much the band packed into the album.
1. “Blood and Thunder”
Far from the longest song in Mastodon’s catalog and by no means the most intricate song they’ve written, “Blood and Thunder” nonetheless captures the epic storytelling of the band perfectly. The open to their Moby Dick-inspired tale of man vs. nature, Leviathan, “Blood and Thunder” is an intense roar of a sludge metal anthem that begins Ahab’s quest to find the white whale with an immortal opening line: “I think that someone is trying to kill me!” The band drops the listener into the middle of the action on the raging seas, with Clutch’s Neil Fallon providing some vivid depictions of the hunt: “Aim directly for his crooked brow, and look him straight in the eye.” Perhaps it’s concise, but capturing something this epic in less than four minutes is a stunning feat unto itself.
Words by Jeff Terich