February 20, 2007

Mountain of sound: Catching up with metal masters Mastodon

Grammy-nominated Mastodon takes on Headliners tonight. September 2006: Mastodon releases its third full-length album and major-label debut Blood Mountain. I selflessly volunteer to review it in this very newspaper, because, as faithful readers know, I am the closest thing LEO has to a metal dude, so I feel duty-bound to offer my critical assessments of this release. How many synonyms for “fucking awesome” are in a thesaurus, anyway?Problem was, my expectations may have been a tad unrealistic. Mastodon’s previous effort, Leviathan, was such a majestic, near-flawless work. While Blood Mountain features all the raw power, epic sweep and technical proficiency I expect from Mastodon, I found the conceptual framework around which Blood Mountain is built to be, well, trite and juvenile: full of one-eyed monsters, tree people, crystal skulls and some kind of mystical quest for salvation that makes “Beowulf” seem like an episode of “According to Jim.” I gave the album a mixed review and moved on with my life.Meanwhile, mainstream media, in its infinite wisdom, decides to anoint Mastodon as the metal band it’s cool to like (for now) and latches onto them like ticks on a beagle. They even score a Grammy nomination for “Colony of Birchmen,” but they ultimately lose out to Slayer’s “Eyes of the Insane.”January 2007: LEO asks me to interview one of the Mastodons to preview the band’s next concert in Louisville. I accept, because despite my lukewarm reaction to Blood Mountain, Mastodon is still pretty god-damned awesome.Karma, as they say, is a bitch. An interview time was scheduled with bass player Troy Saunders, but it fell through. No biggie; we’ll reschedule. Then that rescheduled appointment fell through. I’m starting to get concerned.February 2007: A third scheduled phoner comes and goes without the desired result. Then, the fickle hand of fate decides it’s had enough fun at my expense, and I am finally able to track down Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor. I don’t mention my original review of the album. Why push my luck?Nevertheless, the first thing I want to know is who dreamt up the concept behind Blood Mountain.“It’s a pretty loose concept,” Dailor says. “It is and it isn’t (a concept album). But it’s not like a complete, cohesive story or anything … I like to follow the more traditional, standard, structured stuff, but then I also like the screwed-up stuff, too. It gives it a balance.“We try to mix it up a bit to show that we’re trying to make an escape from that structure that, I don’t know, in 1955 someone decided that your song had to be three-and-a-half minutes and go verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, end,” Dailor says. “I think it’s OK to not have to do that. Heavy music and jazz are probably two of the only genres that accomplished escaping that mold.”Blood Mountain concludes with “Pendulous Skin,” an instrumental track that was inspired by Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. the Elephant Man. This is interesting, because the last two Mastodon albums also concluded with Elephant Man songs (Remission’s “Elephant Man” and Leviathan’s “Joseph Merrick”).“No matter how bad your life is, it could never be as bad as the Elephant Man’s. I just kind of think of him in bad times, you know?” Dailor says. “He had a really tough life. He was basically a monster and was put into a circus, and a lot of horrible things happened to him, and he was happy as anybody else with what he was given. It’s definitely a quality in life to be admired.“I read this book called ‘The True History of the Elephant Man’ and passed it around the van, and everybody kind of got into it.”Mastodon reads books? That’s so not rock ’n’ roll.“Well, when we’re not doing blow off of hookers’ asses or teasing our hair in the bathroom of CBGB’s, we’re reading books about the Elephant Man,” Dailor says wryly. Mastodon returns to Louisville for an all-ages performance tonight at Headliners. Priestess and Stonecutters will open the festivities. Dailor encourages attendees to catch all three bands, and this line-up is a solid one.“There’s been tours that I’ve been out on when I’ve been really bummed out to be there, and I’m hating all the music that’s happening onstage. But when that happens, you have to take a different approach. You can’t constantly preach to the choir. You gotta open up for Britney Spears. Slay the panties off all those 14-year-olds.” Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com