If the Mastodon story is going to begin anywhere, it may as well begin with a gig in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a band called Knuckle, featuring a young Troy Sanders on bass, and in attendance was a dreadlocked guitarist named Brent Hinds. After the gig he approached Troy and congratulated him on a good show. He then offered to join the band, claiming he had "100 songs" written, hoping it would persuade Troy. Troy accepted and the next day Brent moved from Alabama to Atlanta. They jammed for about 5 years, before forming Four Hour Fogger, another pre-Mastodon band. During this time Brent played in a rockabilly surf" band called Fiend Without A Face, and Troy was also playing in a band called Social Infestation with Chris Freeman and Mike Thompson. Both Fiend Without A Face and Social Infestation recorded an album, (self-titled and Redemption Is Only Skin Deep, respectively) but neither band enjoyed any notable success.
So while Troy and Brent were playing shows together in Four Hour Fogger, the other half of Mastodon, Bill Kelliher and Brann Dailor, were playing together in a band called Lethargy. They were a band that played extremely intricate math-metal (Bill said this was useful as it taught him a lot of dexterity in his guitar playing technique that would later be needed in Mastodon). While Lethargy would prove some years later to be an extremely influential band, they were by no means successful (Brann Dailor would later claim this was because the band didn't "whore [themselves] enough. [They] just sat around waiting for a record deal") and some time around the eve of the new millennium, some 6 or 7 years after their formation, they decided to call it a day. Brann and Bill went on to enjoy a brief stint in experimental metal outlet Today Is The Day.
Some time in 2000, they went to a High On Fire show in a friend's basement, which Brent and Troy also happened to be at. Brent, in typical fashion, was running around drunk out of his mind. So Brann and him exchanged words, and Brann said to Brent: go fuck your mother. Brent laughed, appreciating Brann's sarcastic sense of humour, and from then on they were all friends. Bill, Brent and Brann arranged to jam the next day, but, once again, Brent turned up completely wasted. Brann and Bill looked at each other uncomfortably as Brent whacked at his guitar, making awful noises, claiming he wanted to play some stoner rock. Brann said to Bill simply "This guy sucks!"
The next evening however, they gave Brent a chance to redeem himself, and he took advantage of it, turning up "with an acoustic guitar, and [he] started playing all these sick riffs". Bill and Brann were impressed and the 3 decided to keep working together. The trio realised they needed a bassist and Brent said he knew someone, returning with Troy. Over the next few weeks, they jammed, quickly writing songs, and soon had 9 songs done, that would go on to make up their first demo. The line up was completed when they phoned a friend from New York, Eric Saner (nicknamed Insaner due to his crazy antics) and asked him to fulfill vocal duties, and he accepted, and moved down to Atlanta soon after. However, he had to leave the band only a few months after joining as he wasn't enjoying it and missed living in Rochester. During his time however, the band recorded a 9-song demo (which would later be remixed and re-released as Call Of The Mastodon). The 9 songs to feature on the demo were:
01. Shadows That Move
02. Welcoming War
03. Thank You For This
04. We Built This Come Death
05. Call Of The Mastodon
06. Slick Leg
07. Hail To Fire
08. Deep Sea Creature
09. Battle At Sea
Following Eric's departure from the band, the remaining members didn't have time to recruit a new frontman, as they had a tour booked the next week, and rather than cancelling it, Brent and Troy decided they could temporarily do vocals. The position stuck and from then on the band remained as a 4-piece. They toured hard, playing many shows, and gaining a small fanbase.
The band's first official release was a 3-song picture disc, featuring Slick Leg, Thank You For This & Deep Sea Creature (Released on Reptillian Records). Some time in 2001, they signed a deal with Relapse, and soon after they released 5 more songs from the demo (Shadows That Move, Welcoming War, We Built This Come Death, Hail To Fire and Battle At Sea) as an EP entitled Lifesblood. Of the 9 song demo, this just left the song Call Of The Mastodon, which was remixed (along with the other 8 songs) and released in 2006 on Relapse, as Call Of The Mastodon.
They carried on touring hard, taking a break in October 2001 to record their debut full length album, with producer Matt Bayles. Some of the songs from the album like Trainwreck, Trampled Under Hoof and Mother Puncher, the band had been playing live for months, but most of the lyrics were written whilst the band were recording the album.
The result of the recording sessions was Remission (released in May 2002, on Troy's mother's birthday) a stunning album by any band's standards. Many fans claim it to be the band's best and even after the release of their second album Leviathan, Brent said Remission was still his favourite Mastodon release, due to the sheer unrivalled brutality of the album. Opener Crusher Destroyer is a 2 minute blast of energy, that lives up to its name, based around a charging riff. It ends abruptly, and the listener doesn't even have time to breath before March Of The Fire Ants charges from the speakers, heavier than most with it's hypnotic, Neurosis-inspired guitar line, and stoner like ambience, before twisting around completely with a melodic breakdown, Bill and Brent exchanging guitar harmonies. Where Strides The Behemoth is another onslaught, with the drop-A guitars roaring over Brann's rumbling drum fills, and Troy growls about religion and unified eyesight. Following is Workhorse, a song that existed for almost a year before the album's release. Possibly Remission's most accessible song, it still never failed to raise a ferocious pit when played live, hardly surprising due to Brent's raw vocals and the song's breakdown which explodes into an almighty in-your-face riff. The listener finally has a bit of time to breath with Ol'e Nessie, an ethereal epic that tells the tale of missing a loved one. While a lot of the song retains Mastodon's aggression, it also displays a new side to their sound, not really heard before. One that incorporates deep, vast chord progressions and acoustic passages, and ends up making the song possibly Remission's most interesting. However the album returns to more familiar ground with Burning Man. Brutal and ferocious, the song follows similar ideas, lyrically to Where Strides The Behemoth, seeming to tackle the futility of religion and power. Following is the album's longest (and oldest) song Trainwreck, which was written when Eric Saner was still in the band. It begins with a dark, haunting guitar line, an eeriness that is maintained throughout the entire song, and is probably the most chilling thing the band have ever recorded. If Trainwreck is dark and cryptic, Trampled under Hoof is the opposite. Mercilessly unmelodic and heavy, it's a straightforward lunge at the jugular. Trilobite, undoubtedly the hidden gem of the album, follows, captivating the listener with full, sweeping arpeggios and intricate grooves. The song perfectly displays Mastodon's willingness to experiment, a factor which makes them the band they are. The next song, Mother Puncher, is an absolute riff-fest, probably the song that best displays Bill and Brent's abilities, as they lock rhythms and dual harmonies before the song breaks down completely into a headbanger's dream. Slow and crushing, the song rides out on Troy and Brent screaming Hate the one's who bring you down. The album's closing track Elephant Man, is a soaring instrumental, full of acoustic guitars, and featuring one of the best Mastodon solos, recorded by Brent, completely improvised in the studio. It's a fitting end to a great album that displays so many ideas musically, that at first some may find it a little overwhelming. But it was already easy to see how Mastodon would go on to create some of the most influential and interesting music of the 21st century.
While Remission was well-received by fans and critics alike, it didn't make the band overnight stars (although the video for March Of The Fire Ants got the band a place on MTV2's Headbanger's Ball). So they set out on a heavy tour schedule, something they have gotten very used to in their history. Touring was the most effective way to win over new fans, which they did very quickly. While never being a mainstream band, Mastodon are a band that fans of most genres of music can appreciate, incorporating elements of prog, blues, jazz, stoner and most different types of metal into their music. One band that Mastodon always cited as an influence was Thin Lizzy, and they ended most shows of the Remission tour with a cover of Emerald (a studio version of which was released on a split 7 with American Heritage)
And so the band played more and more shows throughout 2002 and 2003, gaining an ever growing fanbase while doing so. During tours towards the end of 2003, the band started writing new material for their next album, (fans on these tours were already being treated to early versions of Megalodon, Naked Burn and Blood & Thunder), and in March 2004 headed to Seattle to record the ideas, (which were based loosely around Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick) once again with Matt Bayles. The album was released in August of that year, under the title Leviathan, and immediately got rave reviews. Several magazines awarded it album of the year, and in 2006, it even came 3rd in Metal Hammer's 100 Greatest Metal Albums Of The Last 25 Years. It's easy to understand why.
Blood & Thunder opens the album, and in the same vein as Crusher Destroyer, aims to stun the listener with sheer power and ferocity. The band even recruited Clutch frontman Neil Fallon to do the vocals on the song's bridge, a Captain Ahab monologue, that urges the ship's crew to thrust their harpoons in the sky, at the white whale himself. The next song, one of the newest to feature on the album is I Am Ahab (which, along with Joseph Merrick, was actually written in the studio). The title gives some insight into the lyrics, which follow the Moby Dick theme, as does Seabeast, the track proceeding I Am Ahab. The album's fourth track, Island is fast and heavy, beginning with Bill thrashing at a heavily distorted guitar. The song is lyrically based around Iceland, (at live shows the band would often introduce the song with that name) and mentions Gullfoss and Heimaey (a waterfall and island of Iceland, respectively). Iron Tusk comes next, and is probably the most immediate song on the album. Brann's furious drum solo introduces the song's bludgeoning riff, while Troy roars about battling whales.
Megalodon is one of the oldest songs on the album, having been written on the tour prior to the recording sessions, and remains one of the band's best known songs, possibly due to the utterly unexpected country lick that Brent plays halfway through, which he claimed to have written while smoking a joint and talking to [his] dogs. Naked Burn is another old song, and probably the most melodic song Mastodon have ever recorded, even featuring clean vocals. The song was played quite often on the tour that preceded recording, but hasn't been played since, as the band (and Brent in particular) have come to heavily dislike the song.
Aqua Dementia follows, one of the album's heaviest songs, thanks in part to Neurosis' Scott Kelley providing guest vocals. The song breaks down with Troy screaming God will watch it burn and the song fades, to the sound of waves lapping up to the rocks on an empty beach. It runs nicely into the acoustic intro of the album's focus point; the 14-minute epic Hearts Alive. The clean arpeggios continue for a couple of minutes, until Brent hits the distortion pedal and the main riff kicks in, from there it's a journey of highs and lows, rising and falling like the tides, while Brent and Troy describe the final battle between Ahab and the great white whale. Towards the end, Brent shreds out an undeniably tasty solo, and the song rides out on a captivating riff. The album closes, like Remission, with an eerie acoustic instrumental, entitled Joseph Merrick.
The album propelled the band to the forefront of the alternative metal scene, and it wasn't long before they were being offered major label contracts. Eventually they decided to sign with Warner Brothers, as they felt it was the label that would give them the greatest artistic control. Brent said We told them they weren't gonna turn us into a radio-band.
Mastodon were asked to support Slayer and Slipknot on the 2004 Unholy Alliance tour, and in February 2006, the band released a remix of their first demo (with alternate vocal takes) entitled Call Of the Mastodon, and their first DVD, The Workhorse Chronicles, which featured a documentary about the band, 28 live videos (or in other words: every original song the band had recorded up to that point, bar Elephant Man and Jospeh Merrick, which have never been played live), and the music videos to March Of The Fire Ants, Blood & Thunder and Iron Tusk. The releases nicely marked the end of the beginning for Mastodon,as they would be their final releases on Relapse Records.
The band's popularity grew and grew at this period, becoming a firm favourite of UK rock magazine "Kerrang!" who regularly featured reviews of Mastodon shows (usually with the highest KKKKK rating) and described them as "no longer a pleasant secret for those in the know". This was certainly true- Mastodon were becoming something bigger than a well-kept secret- and their third album, due for release in 2006, topped many "Most Anticipated Albums of 2006" lists.
The first anyone heard of the new album (asides from early live versions of Circle Of Cysquatch) was "Crystal Skull" released on the band's official website a few months before the album's release date. At festival appearances over the summer, the band played several cuts from the new album, including The Wolf Is Loose, Circle Of cysquatch, Capillarian Crest and Crystal Skull. Anticipation grew even more amongst fans, until the album finally dropped...
Blood Mountain was released on September 11th 2006. It's a concept album that tells the tale of an adventurer as he makes his way up the mountain. He encounters various strange creatures in his quest for the crystal skull, which he aims to place at the tp of the mountain. The album was well received by critics and fans, although some felt that in signing to a major label, the band had softened their sound. It's hard to back-up these claims upon first listen. The relentless drumming and riffing on punky opener The Wolf Is Loose is as aggressive as anything the band have recorded in the past. Following is Crystal Skull, arguably one of the strongest songs the band have ever conceived, the tribal drum-intro leading into a typical Mastodon main riff. The song features Scott Kelley once again on guest vocals, and describes the quest for the skull. Sleeping Giant is reminiscent of Lifesblood track, We Built This Come, with it's blues-like vocals, and is one of the album's more accessible songs. The next track, Capillarian Crest on the other hand, is a complete mind-fuck, featuring a ridiculously complex middle-section, and is one of the most progressive Mastodon tracks. The oldest song in the album is Circle Of Cysquatch, early versions of which had been played live almost a year before the album's release. The song is based upon a creature called the Cysquatch which is one eyed Sasquatch that can see into the future.
If that sounds strange, it's nothing compared to Bladecatcher, which is so bizarre, it has to be heard to be believed. Colony of Birchmen is a more straight-forward affair, even featuring vocals from Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, and was played by the band on the Conan O'Brien Show in November. Hunters Of The Sky begins with a doomy intro, drawing influence from Neurosis and the Melvins. The song transforms into a more straight up track though, and features all the indicators of a typical Mastodon song; plenty of great riffs and lyrics about hideous mythical creatures. Hand Of Stone is a look back to the old days, and would happily fit on Remission or Leviathan, while This Mortal Soil really sees the band exploring new ground. The sound of the song is huge and epic, comparable only perhaps to Hearts Alive. Siberian Divide continues in a similar vein, huge and menacing yet also beautiful. The song finishes the story of the album.
In this final chapter, the adventurer is starving, and suffering from hypothermia. In his state, he hallucinates and believes he sees an aurora borealis, which he takes to be a god, some sort of ice queen. Just as he approaches death, the energy from the crystal skull fills his body with warmth, and gives him the strength to continue. The album ends with Pendulous Skin, which explores similar concepts to Elephant Man and Joseph Merrick; it's a mostly acoustic instrumental, and wraps up the album well.
There's no denying Blood Mountain was huge. It sold over 30,000 copies in its first week (and by December 2006, had sold 65,000 in the US alone) , an amazing feat for a band of Mastodon's nature, and considering what a complex and uncompromising album it is. It landed the band a spot on the Conan O'Brien Show, and Colony Of Birchmen was nominated, alongside songs by Lamb Of God and Stone Sour, for a Best Metal Performance Grammy (which the band lost to Slayer's Eyes Of The Insane). Blood Mountain featured in many magazines' Best Albums Of 2006 polls (including #1 in Total Guitar and Metal Hammer), and Capillarian Crest ranked at #27 on Rolling Stone's 100 Best Songs Of 2006.
As 2007 begun, Mastodon continued doing what they did best: relentless touring. In June they played at the Download Festival, on the main stage, and the next month supported Metallica at Wembley Stadium. Every day it seems, brings them more fans and recognition in the metal world, and it's surely only a matter of time before they become REALLY big. Here Strides The Behemoth.