Mastodon - Blood Mountain (Warner Brothers) Keith Boyd 9/24/06
Heavy. Heavy as an old ship’s anchor tied around your neck and dragging you down to the bottom of the sea at midnight. Abrasive shards of sound reined in and given cohesion through the almighty riff. Ancient beasts arise from those forbidden zones on old maps marked, “Here there be monsters,” and slither forth to reek mindless destruction. Hold on to your hats, folks. Mastodon has unleashed a new one.
2004’s Leviathan was easily one of that year’s best releases. The intensity of its sound and the scope of its vision made it an instant classic that distinguished Mastodon and separated them completely from the horde of other new heavy bands. The thought processes involved and the themes being tackled aligned Mastodon more with the heavy and mythic Neurosis than, say, Norma Jean or 16 Visions. An entire album dealing with Moby Dick might seem to be pretentious or simply odd, but it was neither.
The music was as heavy as a black hole, and Melville’s tale of the mysterious unknown, revenge, and man’s struggle with nature made for more than fertile ground to talk about our common and ceaseless struggles.
Having flown that close to the sun, it might be a natural tendency to expect that Mastodon would come crashing to earth. As Ken Kesey put it, “In America, the only thing we love more than building something up is tearing it down.” The good news is, not this time! Blood Mountain is every bit as tight and deep a package as Leviathan. Even better, we see the band bucking up against the edges of heavy metal’s conventions, and instead of towing the line, they bristle and twist, giving us something new and unexpected.
The first of these new developments is a broader range of tempos. While there are enough neck-snapping epics to satisfy even the most dedicated headbanger (“The Wolf is Loose”, “Crystal Skull”), the addition of several slower and just plain off-kilter pieces (“This Mortal Soil”, “Capillarian Crest”) adds texture, depth, and interest to the overall attack. Once you’ve taken riffs to their ultimate expression, where do you go? Mastodon seems to have found an answer. The songs on Blood Mountain are varied, dense, and even without the constant speed, come across as heavy as death.
This set of songs seems thicker than their previous releases. The sound is almost tangible. It’s like layers of tar-encrusted lumber slowly dropping down on your head and crushing it.
Another development is the greater variety of sound processing in use. Singer Brent Hinds’ voice is at times given layers of otherworldly grit. Guitar riffs wiggle and warp in and out of the mix while layers of instrumentation chorus and chime throughout. It’s at these times, when a band starts to grow and make the most of their hard-won skills, that many heavy metal fans simply walk. Under their breath, they mutter things like, “Sell out,” while they go in search of their next adrenaline rush. I say good riddance. A band as great as Mastodon needs to spread its wings. They need to figure out new ways of expressing the heavy, and as they say in the great kitchens of the world, “In order to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.”
The collective wisdom of mythology is our greatest,and mostly untapped, source of guidance and teaching. The lyrics on Blood Mountain about cyclops and birchmen and forbidden crystal skulls point us back toward our ancestors’ greatest bequeath to us. They tell us not only about the externalized monsters, but the ones we face in the mirror every day. The ones we elect into office. The ones who pray upon our fears, our greed, our weaknesses. The struggle of the heroes in these songs is our common struggle. They mirror our human quest as we move from ignorance to enlightenment and from separation toward unity. Is it too much to expect that a heavy metal band can reach down deep and come up with something that real, that meaningful? I don’t think so. Mastodon has done it. Blood Mountain is the product of just such a deep reach and it rewards us with its findings.