Music » Music Features

Back to the Future

Thirty-five years of metal culminates in Mastodon.



Here's the story: Metal was born when four hoods decided that Black Sabbath was a much cooler name than Earth. There were lesser-knowns who approached the heaviness of Ozzy and entourage, but Black Sabbath took it to the people. Led Zeppelin too, in several of their permutations, were tough enough to be metal. Then Judas Priest's late-'70s classics -- specifically, the trio of Sad Wings of Destiny (1976), Sin After Sin (1977), and Stained Class (1978) -- moved the music into the "new wave" of British heavy metal, a movement whose most famous exports would be Iron Maiden (important) and Def Leppard (after their first album, not so important).

At this point, things get really complicated. Punk, hardcore, and metal jumped in the sack, conceiving a new breed of heavy bands such as Motorhead, Venom, Discharge, and then Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeth. Then, in the mid-to-late '80s, things got inexplicable. Subgenres such as thrash, death-metal, and grindcore would all hatch and flourish, finally establishing an underground that found rabid fans in Earth's every nook and cranny. (Oh wait, I forgot hair-metal, because it's not metal. Except for early Mötley Crüe, Hanoi Rocks, and, later, Guns N' Roses, it was nothing more than pop music ripping off the New York Dolls and calling itself metal.)

And now, in 2004, this subterranean scene may finally be ready to send one of its own triumphantly to the surface: Metal fans, salute Mastodon, who, though named after an extinct creature, may nevertheless be the future of their genre.

Whereas most bands fit into predictable models --frontman and backup or core members and rotating players --Mastodon is the result of two distinct musical pairings. The first, Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher, served as the rhythm section for Nashville's early-'90s entry in the underground metal scene, Today Is the Day. To an almost disturbing level (especially live), Today Is the Day was a band that elevated the role of emotional catharsis in the music, and this was never more evident than on 1999's In the Eyes of God album and tour, of which Dailor and Kelliher were an unmistakable part.

After splitting from Today Is the Day that same year, the pair moved back to their hometown of Rochester, New York, to decompress and plan the next move, which would turn out to be Atlanta. It was there that Dailor and Kelliher met the other half of Mastodon, Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds. The chemistry of the new band was such that fully formed songs were written within weeks. With one of the all-time greatest metal names secured, Mastodon hit the road in 2000. And by consistently sweeping the stage of the bands they shared bills with, Mastodon quickly established itself as a force not unlike a giant, extinct, hairy mammal clearing clubs of would-be competitors.

Mastodon cherry-picks the gems from over three decades of top-drawer metal and then updates all of the influences into a futuristic, unstoppable detonation. The not entirely unthinkable combination of the Voivod's visionary exploits with heavy indie math-metal (Slint) and extreme metal (mostly death-metal) becomes a sucker-punching reality when one is in the presence of this band. All of this seemed to be fully gestated when Mastodon dropped Lifesblood in August 2001. The six-song EP was released on the metal safe house Relapse Records, the signing a result of the band's whopping live reputation and incessant touring, where Mastodon was probably shaming a lot of existing Relapse bands with whom they were paired.

Less than a year later, Mastodon finished Remission (also on Relapse), a debut full-length that expanded the style of the EP. Lines were blurred in the wake of Remission: Rockers, metalheads, indie fans, hardcore kids they all came together in response to the sheer intensity and breadth that Mastodon was capable of delivering. To someone completely unfamiliar with underground metal, who thinks that metal means Poison or Cinderella, I liken the introduction to the first time Bill Cosby heard N.W.A. (Another incorrect assumption would be that Mastodon has anything to do with the metalization of inverted-baseball-cap hardcore as illustrated by roid-rage nincompoops like Hatebreed or Earth Crisis or the "nü-metal" of innumerable semiliterate halfwits like Slipknot/Staind/Limp Bizkit, which, to quote comedian David Cross, is like an 11-year-old girl's poetry coming out of a 30-year-old man's mouth.)

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