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Woolly Metal

Mastodon reduces alt-metal and prog to a dense, ornate rumble.

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Would you believe these guys wrote the Aqua Teen Hunger Force theme music?
  • Would you believe these guys wrote the Aqua Teen Hunger Force theme music?

Troy Sanders' ears are ringing as he answers the phone during a rare break from rehearsal. The immediate reason is the show that bassist-vocalist Sanders played, at overwhelming volume, only two days earlier as a member of the Atlanta quartet Mastodon.

After six months off the road, the metal behemoths took to the stage for a poorly kept "secret" show on June 6, playing for 150 at a cramped southern sweatbox called the Drunken Unicorn. And a day after Sanders' interview, half of Mastodon will sit in with the Little Five Points Rockstar Orchestra to perform "Wrathchild," following a musical-theater tribute to Iron Maiden's 1982 LP The Number of the Beast. (Mastodon's career apex to date has been opening for Maiden in front of 65,000 European fans, Sanders acknowledges.)

"It's good to get out of the practice space, get back in fighting shape," says Sanders, contemplating the band's opening slot on Slayer's Unholy Alliance tour. "We grew up a bar band, and that tight energy is too powerful to not want to feed on it. But if you get asked to do a tour with Slayer, fuck, that's cool -- to buddy up with a legendary band and hit some arenas. We love just grabbing a tour and following it."

The Unholy Alliance tour is Mastodon's fourth outing with Slayer. With Lamb of God and Children of Bodom also on the bill, the event is a tinnitus-inducing testament to heavy music's unflagging, multiheaded presence. Of course, Sanders' ears could also be ringing because people the internet over are talking incessantly about Mastodon as the band readies for the late-August release of Blood Mountain, its third full-length and Warner Bros. debut.

Mastodon formed a little over six years ago, when guitarist Bill Kelliher and drummer Bränn Dailor (both formerly of Today Is the Day and Lethargy) met Sanders and guitarist-vocalist Brent Hinds at a High on Fire show in an Atlanta basement. Watching the band's recently released Workhorse Chronicles DVD, you wouldn't initially have guessed that a metal powerhouse would be formed through the beer-, fart- and sweat-soaked haze. But -- blending a love of Neurosis, Iron Maiden, Genesis, Thin Lizzy, the Melvins, Metallica, Black Flag, Venom, Quicksand, Jesus Lizard, and Jack Daniels' -- Mastodon has forged a sound that is at the outset slow and heavy, but when roused is capable of a tremendous, nimble attack that tramples all over metal's map.

This amalgam of thrash, black metal, hardcore, and grind has resulted in two albums for Relapse Records, 2002's Remission and 2004's Leviathan. Both offer cathartic movements that far outmaneuver the lunging and lumbering heaps of contempt exhibited by so many other "raging" musicians. "I listen to our album and I'm not angry when it's over," Sanders said several years ago, while touring for Remission. "I've been taken on an emotional roller coaster touring with this band that translated [into] recording . . ."

Now it's a few years down the road, and while still to be applauded for being approachable everymen, the members of Mastodon can claim accelerated, international-veteran status. Albums reflect less on tour dynamics and more on core dynamics. Leviathan opened to frothy crests of melody and a thematic tack taken from Moby Dick. Blood Mountain further explores the band's prog-rock leanings with an earth theme -- further illustrated on the cover by a conceptual canvas from artist Paul Romano -- to follow Leviathan's water and Remission's fire (all Romano oils).

"Bränn, our drummer, had this vision, which kept in the linear path of each album," says Sanders. "Plus, if you focus on keeping everything under the umbrella of the one strong subject, it leaves plenty of literary topics for lyrics, which is a field day for me. There are shitloads of things involved with a mountain -- how it was created, what's on it. It's a buffet of ideas."

That smorgasbord was also devoured by fans treated to a preview of Blood Mountain songs at the Drunken Unicorn. Opening with a garrote-taut post-hardcore riff that Kelliher strangles from his six strings, the standout "Circle of the Psysquatch" unfurls into a rapid-fire throttle, which could be Mastodon's equivalent of Maiden's "Aces High." The bristly jolts, meanwhile, are reminiscent of Mastodon's early recordings, collected on this year's Call of the Mastodon.

Initial rumors had Mastodon composing Blood Mountain as one continuous piece of music and performing it as such on 6/6/6, but the show that night covered all of Mastodon's bizarre, intricate trajectory.

"It's so nerve-racking, the head-butting process of writing music together with lyrics, then structuring the songs and titles, so we ended up with 12 songs instead of one symphony," admits Sanders. "There's still a theme through it, though. It's a mountain, so metaphorically we're ascending the mountain, chronicling the hurdles and battles along the way. We're sci-fi geeks, so I can also promise there are plenty of mythical beasts and the search for knowledge. None of that breaking up and 'my parents suck' crap."

Additional musicians on Blood Mountain who help maintain Mastodon's genre-rending reputation include Omar Rodriguez and Cedric Bixler from the Mars Volta, Scott Kelly from Neurosis (also on Leviathan), and Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age. A lucky few, if they don't blink, may catch Matt Pike of High on Fire wander across a few stages dressed as a Yeti.

"Maybe we're wishing we grew up in the '70s and could do all that psychedelic shit," says Sanders. "Maybe for the next one, we jump straight to outer space and into a black hole. We've also talked about having a Penguin Awareness event, where we go to Antarctica, set up our gear with generators, and do a show for all the Emperor penguins. And the merch would just be bow ties. But maybe we'll just get through the next year of touring before we worry about that."

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