Mastodon, Heavy Metal, and a Cold Dark Place

Mastodon has become one of my favorite bands of all time. Their unique blend of sludge, stoner, doom, progressive, and alternative hard rock and heavy metal (plus grindcore and hardcore, though that was more in their early days) makes Mastodon hard to pin down to a certain genre. And that’s just the way they like it. Bassist and vocalist Troy Sanders had this to say when asked about Mastodon’s genre-bending:

“To a large degree, we don’t consider ourselves a metal band. We recognize there is a lot of metal in us, but we also want to believe we have a lot of rock ‘n’ roll in us, and we have a lot of progressive rock in us. We have bits and pieces of thrash and punk and psychedelic-ness sprinkled throughout. A lot of times for me, personally, just having the metal tag itself seems kind of limiting on us because we have such an appreciation for all styles of music, and we like to incorporate bits and pieces of those into our songs. But we also recognize all the different sub-genres, and the millions of times people say, “Oh, what do they sound like?” and you say something, I understand that. But it doesn’t affect how we create anything at all.”

That’s the way I like it too. Genre mish-mashing appeals to me more than any clean-kept, pure-bred, strongly guarded subgenre purveyance ever will. Just think of some of the great rock and metal pioneers.

Would rock be what it is without the king of rock ‘n’ roll himself, Elvis Presley, the man who revolutionized music by blending blues, gospel, country, and rhythm and blues in a fast tempo, heavy backbeat fusion? The Beatles experimented in all kinds of genres to create their world changing music: ’50s rock and roll, Merseybeat, doo-wop, R&B, blues, folk, jazz, art pop, baroque pop, chamber pop, psychedelic rock, hard rock, avant-garde, Indian music, and orchestral music. Did Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix care about how guitar was “supposed” to be played? No, they decided how they wanted to play it. Berry defined guitar driven rock and roll – really, truly got it started – with his riffs and solos. Hendrix revolutionized the rock guitar, made it what it is today, with his electric blues style, wah-wah pedals, stereophonic phasing, high volume, high gain, and overdrive. Many people claim Black Sabbath invented heavy metal, and that’s a tough claim to dispute. They mixed blues, jazz, folk, and psychedelia with slowed-down, tuned-down, ominous, doom-laden sounds. Not only did they more or less create heavy metal, they also highly influenced subgenres like stoner, sludge, grunge, and doom.

In an interview with Metal Underground.com, Bill Kelliher, Mastodon’s rhythm guitarist, said this:

When we’re writing music, we do it from the heart. We don’t think if the kid is going to like this, or you know, it’s not a preconceived idea or whatever. . . We just write what we like. . . We write music for ourselves. We try to impress each other with the stuff that we write. You know, we are always trying to . . . write something that is cool. Or someone in the band says, “I like that, this guy is really cool, let’s throw it in the mix and put this in.”

The interviewer, and Kelliher, went on to draw some very relevant parallels to another little band, Metallica. All the revolutionaries in the music world think outside the box, and so do Mastodon.

In years to come, countless metal bands will cite Mastodon as a huge influence. In fact, we’re seeing that sort of thing already. What metalhead won’t recognize that hook from “Blood and Thunder”? I, and many others, credit the album that song is from, Leviathan, with helping usher in a refreshing new era for heavy metal. When Leviathan released in 2004, many people thought metal was in the midst of its death throes, and perhaps it was. Nu-metal and rap-rock had ravaged the genre, and while acts like Korn were releasing some decent material, few others were. There were certainly other bands out there keeping the genre alive, but mostly through music that was an imitation of previous greatness. Mastodon was different. They were both learning from the old masters and creating unique, fresh sounds. And though they favor grandiose music and literary-type concepts, they never take themselves too seriously. Just watch their interviews and music videos.

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Image via Rolling Stone

☆☆☆☆

I first became familiar with Mastodon after doing a study of the complete discographies of the so-called Big 4 of Thrash Metal. After this study, I got a bit depressed, thinking, “Man, I’ll never find groups as good as Metallica, Megadeth, or Anthrax.” I had immersed myself so fully into their works that I felt sad at the end of my study. Yet I also wanted to find a new (to me, somewhat new at least) band to dive into. I tried several but couldn’t find anything to fill that elusive hole in my heavy metal heart. Then I found Mastodon.

I mean, I had always known about Mastodon, and I knew that they were considered by many to be one of the few long-running bands who have never released a bad album. It’s just that I had never paid close attention to them. The song that got me hooked was that same song I mentioned before, “Blood and Thunder,” which I found on Kirk Hammet’s official Spotify playlist. Being a band recommended by a guitarist I respect, I began to go through Mastodon’s albums and research their history. I loved everything I found!

☆☆☆☆

cold_dark_place

Now, here we are in 2017, which has seen the release of not one but two Mastodon projects. The first project is Emperor of Sand. You can read all about my thoughts on that album over in my review. Long story short, I loved it and still do, even after listening to the record numerous times. The second project, however, is what I want to talk about now.

Back in January, Brent Hinds said, in an interview with Loudwire (a video you must watch, and that’s all I’ll say), that he needed to “take the garbage out” and release some of the albums that he’s written, with and without Mastodon. One of those albums, he said, was going to release on Record Store Day, an album called Cold Dark Place that Hinds wrote entirely by himself but which, it seemed, would be performed by him and the band. Though I was excited by this prospect, I wasn’t sure if that was true or just some nonsense that Hinds had spouted out, like he often does. (If you don’t know about Hinds and his legendary interviews, just start out with that Loudwire one.)

As it turns out, Hinds’s announcement was partly true. Cold Dark Place did come out, and it is Hinds’s material, but it came out September 22nd, and the four tracks are songs that came from the writing sessions of Emperor of Sand and Once More ‘Round the Sun.

brent_and_bill
Image via All Axess

The artist’s name ascribed to Cold Dark Place is Mastodon, and the whole band performs the four tracks, but the effort itself belongs distinctly to Brent Hinds. He wrote the songs, and his vocals and guitars are all over the EP. In true Hinds fashion, as well, the tracks are extremely Southern in nature, Hinds being an Alabama boy. He even plays a pedal steel guitar on this thing.

Cold Dark Place is a mixture of traditional heavy metal, sludge, southern rock, and prog, tinged with bluegrass and folk music. It’s got pop tendencies, but heavy tendencies too. Dirge elements here and there, but also power, guitar solos, and riffs. The writing is mature, introspective, and filled with melancholy. It’s about reflecting on one’s self. Aimlessness and disillusionment exist, but so do contentment and moving onward. The album has a clean and refined texture, thanks to producers Nick Raskulinecz and Brendan O’Brien.

Cold Dark Place feels like a trip into the looming, ghostly swamps of Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida, locations quite close to home for the Atlanta-based band. The steel guitar wails alongside the rest of Mastodon as the guys begins their journey into the musty fog, the band’s sound drifting about their immense recording space. Dailor’s fills heavy, jazzy, yet solid drumming ebbs and flows with the music but also provides the band with something to stand upon. “North Side Star” sets us off with a dreading, funky, psychedelic, even bluegrass feel, a mandolin making an unexpected but fitting appearance. “Blue Walsh” contains both psych pop and sludge metal. “Toe to Toes,” a tune that is quickly becoming my favorite song of 2017, contains odd timing and tone shifts, well-defined and delightful sections, grand Hinds choruses, and full band breakdowns. The finale, “Cold Dark Place,” finds us at the end of this far too short journey, and it also finds Hinds baring his soul even more than he did on the three tracks preceding.

The cold, dark place that Hinds desired to explore here is not the deserts of Emperor of Sand but the depths of the heart of humanity, especially his, and – as he said in that Loudwire interview – “the concept of living and how much it hurts to be . . . alive.” Still, as deep and miserable as this idea may appear, Cold Dark Place strikes me as exultant at its successful venture into Hinds’ apparent pain, whatever its source, basking in its success at taking out Hinds’s “garbage.” Is it weird for me to say this might just be one of my favorite things Mastodon has ever done?

Though this hasn’t exactly been a traditional review, my grade for Cold Dark Place is 96%.

Here are the album credits:

Artist: Mastodon
Title: Cold Dark Place
Genre: Heavy Metal/Hard Rock
Release Date: September 22nd, 2017
Length: 22 min.
Label: Reprise
Producers: Nick Raskulinecz and Brendan O’Brien
Personnel: Brent Hinds (guitars, vocals), Brann Dailor (drums, vocals), Bill Keliher (guitars), Troy Sanders (bass, vocals)

Oh, and that cover art is gorgeous, some of the best I’ve ever seen. There’s a great video from Revolver about how it was created, and how the artwork depicts an older version of Hinds stuck in a mythological, shadowy forest, as nature sort of reaches in toward this gloomy figure and the cabin where he sits. Russian and Japanese folklore influenced Richey Beckett in the making of this illustration, and I can’t get enough of it. Each of Mastodon’s records contains an amazing piece of artwork on its cover, and this might be the best one.

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Mastodon’s masterful cover art over the years

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