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Metallic Apex 

Mastodon destroys cookie-cutting rock

Wednesday, Sep 20 2006
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For many independent bands — especially those playing heavy music — jumping to a major label often translates to jumping the shark: Edges soften, radio-ready choruses get shoehorned into sub-par tunes, and hardcore fans are handed a musical turd intended for mainstream consumption. Devoted followers of metal innovators Mastodon needn't worry about the group falling off with Blood Mountain, the Atlanta-based outfit's third album and first effort for Warner Bros. Records. True, the disc features some surprisingly melodic vocals and reaches for broader sonic vistas than past releases, but the labyrinthine, slide-rule riffs, dizzying rhythms, and warped lyrical content on display show Mastodon has no interest in selling out to gain a wider audience.

Taking the listener deep into an extended, bong-addled basement Dungeons & Dragons session, Blood Mountain unfolds as a surreal vision quest to a titular peak populated by such mythical creations as the Cysquatch (a race of one-eyed yeti shamen) and malevolent tree beings the Birchmen. It seems such bizarre subject matter might hamper the songwriting process, but in a phone interview, drummer Brann Dailor explains how the concept framework actually helped focus the album's direction: "[The theme] sometimes dictates how the record is going to sound, because I think we write more cinematically. We kind of see the story in our heads."

Building the twisted universe of Blood Mountain drove Mastodon to match the unique lyrics to some of its most relentless and diverse tunes yet. Dailor simultaneously channels Slayer skinsman Dave Lombardo and progressive-rock drum legend Bill Bruford on the opening one-two salvo of "The Wolf Is Loose" and "Crystal Skull," pushing guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher to new heights of six-string savagery. The ax-wielding duo receives ample spotlight with the careening riff gymnastics heard on "Capillarian Crest" and the unhinged instrumental "Bladecatcher," but some of their best work comes during less extreme moments, like the majestic psychedelia of "Sleeping Giant" and the melancholy album closer "Pendulous Skin."

Even though Mastodon expanded its palette with greater vocal contributions from Hinds — who offers gruff, growling counterpoint to bassist Troy Sanders' newly restrained singing — the group still tapped into its circle of like-minded peers to guest on Blood Mountain. In addition to bringing back previous collaborator and longtime inspiration Scott Kelly — "If it wasn't for Neurosis, we wouldn't even be a band," Dailor states of that band's bassist without hesitation — Queens of the Stone Age mainstay Josh Homme and Cedric Bixler-Zavala of the Mars Volta lend their talents to "Colony of Birchmen" and "Siberian Divide," respectively. How did they all end up working together?

"Birds of a feather, I guess," says Dailor. "Basically, those are friends of ours; they just happen to be in some of the best bands out there. To me, they're three of the most distinguishable voices in the heavy-rock scene. It's not much more deeply thought out than ÔHey, dude, you want to sing on our record a little bit?' And on certain songs, we just kind of heard them there already."

Blood Mountain not only fulfills Dailor's expressed desire "to push myself as a musician and push the other guys in the band as musicians," it raises the creative bar of what a metal album can achieve without sacrificing an iota of Mastodon's brutal power. Not long ago, an uncompromising commitment to album-length themes and virtuoso prog-metal pummeling would have doomed Mastodon to a cult following, if not commercial oblivion. Now, the band has taken a well-deserved place alongside mavericks Queens, the Mars Volta, and fellow conceptual headbangers Opeth as leading lights in the current renaissance of metal and hard rock.

About The Author

Dave Pehling

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