The other day Bill Kelliher heard "Colony of Birchmen"—a tune by Mastodon, the Atlanta-based metal band in which he plays guitar—on the radio. "And not some small alternative metal station, either," Kelliher says, "but a regular rock station. That blew me away, that the radio would play something as heavy as Mastodon."
"Colony of Birchmen" is indeed heavy; like most everything by Mastodon, the tune rumbles along on a thunderous groove that makes good on the band's name. But it's not hard to hear what a programmer at a regular rock station heard that made him want to put "Colony" on the air: There's a fuzzy guitar riff capable of inspiring listeners to tell each other to turn it up, man. There's a catchy vocal melody sung in part by Queen of the Stone Age Josh Homme, whose adenoidal whine somehow makes heaviness seem light. And there's a lovely lyric in which guitarist-singer Brent Hinds (the guy who handles all the shouty bits singer-bassist Troy Sanders doesn't do) announces his desire to "hunt for ogres and dwarves" as well as his credentials as a "lion slicer."
Wait, hold up—slicing lions is kind of fucked up. "Everything on the radio sounds like the same song by the same band," Kelliher continues. "Nobody's doing anything different. I mean, I guess when System of a Down came out, I heard them and thought, 'Wow, that kind of sticks out.' But now everybody's doing the singing-screaming voice and it's all really polished and overproduced."
This poses the question: Are Mastodon—whose latest album, Blood Mountain, is the first fruit of the band's major-label deal with Reprise—doing something different? Or is there a lesser-known band currently occupying Mastodon's old underground spot complaining to someone else about how he heard "Colony of Birchmen" with all of its singing and screaming and it made him think that everything on the radio sounds like the same song by the same band?
Yes and yes. Mastodon hail from a world in which selling out is still viewed as something guys do to get paid and/or laid, which is why a search for the least melodic metal band ever would be impossible to complete. There is always someone more willing to denounce pleasure than the previous guy. So, okay, let the record show: Mastodon sold out because they spent two months in Seattle crafting Blood Mountain with producer Matt Bayles. "Having more time to record gave us the chance to try new ideas," says Bayles, "and then revisit them if we weren't happy with them." Can you believe that shit?
On the other, infinitely more important hand, Blood Mountain kicks serious A. It's pretty unique, too—and not necessarily in regards to the stuff about ogres and dwarves (which no one can get enough of these days), but in the way it makes super-technical math metal feel like rip-roaring body-shop rock. Mercifully, Mastodon have never been afraid of melody; Leviathan, their 2004 concept-album tribute to Moby Dick, is downright jaunty at points. But on Blood Mountain, the tunes do a better job of inviting you into the album's world, then convincing you to stick around while the band keep busy "ingest[ing] the rotten bone" and "chew[ing] on the root that gives us sight."
"You can't be heavy all the time," is how Kelliher comes down on the issue of heft. "It's good to mix it up, you know? It doesn't sound heavy if you're heavy all the time." That use of contrast is a skill the guitarist thinks he and his bandmates are honing. "When we first started out, we didn't know what we were doing," he says. "Not that we have a solid idea now. But as we've matured as musicians and as friends, it's definitely a growing, organic thing. The next record's gonna be even more drastic, with songs that are real soft and quiet and then get super dark and heavy."
The result, Kelliher explains, is that Mastodon get called "a musicians' band—people who can actually play." While the guitarist acknowledges that Blood Mountain is not for everybody, he thinks that "a lot of bands don't give their fans enough credit. They just say, 'Let's play this part four times and then do a blast beat.'" And what's wrong with, "Let's play this part four times and then do a blast beat"? "Nothing," Kelliher says. "But we're trying to play to more intellectual listeners, as well. We've got people older than me at our shows; it's not just kids in black T-shirts. You also see geometric haircuts and white belts. And lots of girls, which is cool. So there must be something deeper there than just heavy music."