There is an Indian parable that tells that 5 blind men tried to describe an elephant. The first touched its side, and proclaimed the beast a wall. The second touched the trunk and deemed it a snake. The third touched an ear, and thought it a fan. The fourth touched a leg and was sure it was a tree trunk. The last one touched its tail, which made the elephant a rope.
The music of Mastodon is like the elephant in the story. Equal parts metal, prog rock, stoner rock, punk rock and thrash metal (with a few others mixed in), it is dangerous to try to categorize their music by using only one of these elements. Likewise, expecting this band to stick to one genre can only build up to disappointment.
Since their beginning in Atlanta in 2000, Mastodon has forged a solid reputation for intricate compositions, solid musicianship and living up to the “heavy” in “heavy metal”, to the point that Rolling Stone, in their review of 2009’s “Crack the Skye”, proclaimed that “Mastodon are the greatest metal band of their generation — no one else comes close”. But their path has sparked a lot of discussions and heated debate in their fan base. And by the time Rolling Stone made that proclamation, some fans were already lamenting the loss of guttural vocals, and longing for the heavier tracks of their first two albums (especially their second opus, “Leviathan”, a concept album (in part) inspired by the Herman Melville novel “Moby Dick”). As their musical horizons have expanded, many fans felt they’d betrayed their metal roots and gone commercial or soft. Guitarist Bill Keliher, in an interview to Loudwire, clearly indicated that the band had moved on by saying “I think us screaming and yelling is kind of a thing of the past.”
Yet it could be argued that despite moving towards clean vocals (a move that echoes the similar progression of Swedish death/prog outfit Opeth), Mastodon has never been heavier. Their last album “Once More ‘Round the Sun” is still full of those downtuned, Sabbath-style riffs that are the foundation of doom metal.
Mastodon’s progressive rock roots manifest themselves in their lyrical themes (“Crack the Sky” is about a paraplegic who learns astral projection and travels to Rasputin’s court. Need I say more?) and convoluted musical structures. Not quite as complex as a band like Dream Theater, but you’re still not likely to pick up all the nuances on your first listen. They also share with prog rockers a penchant to consider nothing off limit. On their latest album, the track “Aunt Lisa” culminates into a wicked trash riff, while the vocals (provided by members of The Coathangers) shout out a Ramones-like “Hey! Ho! Let’s fucking go! Hey! Ho! Let’s get up and rock ‘n roll”.
Metal fans like to precisely categorize their bands, and unfortunately (for them), Mastodon completely defies attempts to do so. For the rest of us, we’re grabbing on tight, and enjoying the ride, wondering what lies ahead behind the next curve.