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Mastodon - Leviathan

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Artist: Mastodon

Album: Leviathan

Label: Relapse

Review date: Nov. 4, 2004

Mention “concept album” and “heavy metal” in the same sentence, and you’ll usually bring conversations to an abrupt halt. What comes most quickly to mind are the haunted house excesses of King Diamond or something equally at home in the world of elves, swords, and heroic vanity. Atlanta’s crushingly good Mastodon have, on their second full-length record, created a pretty incredible take on Melville’s Moby Dick. Hubris, you say? Absolutely. Risky, you sneer? Probably so. But this album quickly dismisses such concerns in brutal fashion by coming at you unhinged for ¾ of an hour.

Melville himself wrote of “That Himmalehan, salt-sea Mastodon, clothed with such portentousness of unconscious power, that his very panics are more to be dreaded than his most fearless and malicious assaults!” Power and assaults are certainly the order of the day, but the fury is leavened by craft, lyricism, and pacing. Combining a gift for downtuned riffage, an awesome technique (particularly drummer Brann Dailor, who is like the Billy Cobham of metal), and great songwriting which combines the uniquely ritualistic dynamics of good hardcore metal with the experimentalism of good prog rock (think King Crimson circa Red), and you’ve got Mastodon. It’s not surprising that I keep coming back to the Crimson reference when I listen to this record (and I’ve been listening to it a lot). When I was in my early 20s and I finally made it through Moby Dick, I was completely rapt by the book. Despite its occasional diversions into whaling techniques, something about its intense, neo-Biblical prose and its dark obsessions seemed uniquely American; its Gothic intensities, like those found in Hawthorne, seemed to resonate deeply with those dark times (Bush I, in case you’re wondering). As a soundtrack to the last 20 pages of the book, I chose Red and subsequently had one of the most memorable aesthetic experiences of my life.

And while this album certainly isn’t up to the level of Red – what is? – it’s pretty amazing. Their previous full-length, Remission, boasts some savage moments but wasn’t entirely consistent. Here the songwriting is more coherent, more adventurous, but also boasts some melodic content that not only reinforces the nautical feel (some of these tunes could almost be thrashy sea shanties) but represents a major step forward for the group (bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders has expanded his range, and there are also guest spots from Clutch’s Neil Fallon – on the anthemic “Naked Burn” – and Scott Kelly of the mighty Neurosis on the crushing “Aqua Dementia”). And guitarist Brent Hinds and Bell Kelliher have refined their monster riffs and dazzling twin lines even further, sounding like a mutation of Thin Lizzy, Botch and Slayer. “Hearts Alive” is a 13-minute epic that recalls Metallica’s “Call of Cthulhu” or “Orion.” “Megalodon” is a crazed musical whiplash between pummeling breakbeats and weird references to Southern rock. And the opening “Blood and Thunder” and “Iron Tusk” are just shit-kickingly good.

The twins of madness and obsession, which Mastodon explore so well on this record, unfortunately capture something of this moment in political culture. Not that this is a political album – it’s not – but it resonates in that way for me. You certainly don’t need to contemplate the political sunken ship that is our country to enjoy Leviathan, but it helps. But whatever your take, whatever your starting point, if you’re at all into heavy music you will enjoy this one. Surely on my year’s Top 10 list.

By Jason Bivins

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