Learning to Love Mastodon

College students identify with any number of silly things: Bret Easton Ellis novels, “The Hills,” NYU’s gender and sexuality major. All of us, however, identify with music, and we like to broadcast our sonic character through venues aplenty (last.fm, shared iTunes libraries, blogs such as this, our speakers in the wee hours of the morning). And you know, I get flack because I happen to identify with metal (sludge, stoner, doom, drone – it’s all good). I get flack while everyone else creams, just creams over Asher Roth, Girl Talk, and, what, the fucking Beatles?

Man, fuck The Beatles. That was so forty years ago.

Okay, don’t actually fuck The Beatles.

But I have a problem with something. Mastodon is among the most well-reviewed progressive heavy metal ventures of the 21st century, garnering very generous reviews not just for 2009’s release (“Crack the Skye“), but also “Blood Mountain,” their first release on major label Reprise Records, which operates under Warner Bros. 2004’s sophomore effort, “Leviathan,” a concept album based on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” which you might’ve heard of, was recently named one of the best albums of the past ten years by indie music site Pitchfork.com. And while their earliest album (ignoring the now-retired EPs gathered under “Call of the Mastodon”), 2002’s “Remission” is obviously the forgotten brother (Pitchfork actually rated it higher than “Leviathan” upon its initial release – a 9/10 as opposed to an 8.5), it also attracted a lot of positive critical attention. These are not just snobby music sites handing out accolades; even The New York Times lavished praise upon their most recent album, calling it “fantastic in every sense… girded with hard-fought musical and emotional maturity.” Everybody loves Mastodon, but people, people hate Mastodon.

“I wish this band would go the way of the real Mastodon” quipped a 20-something, Frog Eyes-shirt-wearin’ shit at Pitchfork Music Fest 2007 as precious, precious Mastodon spewed their magnificent, blood-disintegrating brand of slap-you-in-the-face rock on a nearby stage. That guy was a prick. But that guy also represents what I’ve come to appreciate as a mainstream, knee jerk reaction to a band that is unflinchingly confrontational. I’ve had friends tell me that they’ve started a Mastodon album only to have to rip their headphones off and hurl them across the room the moment vocalist Troy Sanders dropped jaw and bellowed.

But I remembered, as I was thinking about this, that I wasn’t so different at first. I, too, having grown curious because of Mastodon’s wonderful intro to the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” movie, initially turned “Blood Mountain” off after mere seconds. My girlfriend likes to say that I like “difficult” music, and I suppose that pretty much gets to the heart of what Mastodon is at first, until you adjust to what is, in fact, very visceral brain candy. It goes for the gut, but it connects somewhere else.

So I had a thought, after a number of critical comments from new friends on my, er, challenging musical taste, to address what I think it takes for someone to actually come around to liking Mastodon. Because unlike The Beatles – ever the golden standard of populist rock – this is not music that many can leap into and get off on. This is a situation worth bothering with because the best progressive metal artists of our time represent something that will endure well beyond the scope of pop media like iTunes’ Top 10 albums of the week (face it: we need help when our best indie artists, Thom fucking Yorke included, are jumping at the opportunity to be featured on the “New Moon” soundtrack, now iTunes’ third best seller). It’s worth bothering with because, frankly, I think this is important music. Let’s figure it out.

The best music, in my opinion, represents something. Radiohead’s “OK Computer” is a paralyzing indictment of paranoid, sobs-in-the-pillow modernity, for instance. But music can also represent something infinitely more personal and broad, like the feeling of barreling forward, 15,000 miles per hour, on a bobsled (try “Mass Romantic” by The New Pornographers). It’s hard for me to get behind a song thing like “I Love College,” because it doesn’t represent “the good times” or how I feel when I’m slamming back Busch Lite in a craphole somewhere; it’s a pale limp dick slapping into hollow nothing. The music doesn’t have a soul.

Soul is important. My roommate and I laughed ourselves silly when we perused the “Precious” website (wonderfully, “weareallprecious.com”) only to stumble upon this doozy of a compliment from Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Glieberman: “YOU FEEL YOU’VE WITNESSED NOTHING LESS THAN THE BIRTH OF A SOUL.” And, you know, that’s heinously over the top, but there is something to be said for the living element of art, be it music, film, whatever, the part of it that gets inside your head and changes, even if slightly, how you think about things, how you feel.

And here is the soul of Mastodon: it’s apocalyptic, scary, raucous, unrelenting. I’m going to say something a little gross here, something that my merciful overlord hinted at in discussing the power of “The Dark Knight”: Mastodon’s music is the burn-down-your-house-and-trample-your-mother exemplification of the post-9/11 zeitgeist. This is why progressive metal in the vein of Mastodon is so precious. It is the will that brings the trembling, downtrodden masses to their feet, screaming at the exploding world around them. It is Batman shooting Darkseid, Obama’s election night speech viewed from Times Square, Will Smith punching, impossibly, a gigantic alien in the face and yelling “Welcome to Earth.

This is music to awaken you to the hopelessness (one might say, the nihilistic realization of Armageddon) of our time and simultaneously have you pumping your fist in the air.

And, well, it’s also really well-crafted and sounds pretty awesome if you give it a fair shake. There’s that, too.

Here’s what I suggest:

If you’re uninitiated, listen to “Crack the Skye.” It’s their most recent album, and definitely their most “musical,” in the sense that it’s composed with plenty of hooks, choruses, and involves a lot more actual singing than guttural screaming. This is the album that seemed to elevate Mastodon to a higher mainstream profile, probably because it’s more aligned with the typification of “alternative rock” (so, like, this is the sort of thing that someone who really likes Nirvana might be able to make the leap to). When you’re done with that, try “Blood and Thunder” on for size. It is, doubtlessly, their most famous song, and one of their best. (Pitchfork pretty much hit it on the head when they wrote of Leviathan, the album on which “Blood and Thunder” appears, that “Mastodon make it work by tapping into the primal dread and awe that comes with a gigantic whale smashing the fuck out of a whole whaling ship.”) And then, “Blood Mountain”; it is their most intricate and best work yet.

After that… Well, let me know.

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2 Responses to “Learning to Love Mastodon”

  1. Well done review/slap in the face. Too many unbelievers out there, good sir.

  2. who creams themselves over asher roth?

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