When Mastodon put out their first three albums, I heard rave reviews. I was so confused due to a 80s CCM rock band called MastEdon, Mastedon sucked. Hard. If you’re a Kansas fan, you might know the worse Kansas album ever, Vinyl Confessions – the lead singer on that album was behind Mastedon. So – when people who’s musical opinion I respected started raving about what I thought was a John Elefante band, I just ignored the reviews as a fluke of taste. I didn’t listen to Mastodon.
Eventually, I realized the sucky CCM Mastedon was a different band (who misspelled their name for whatever reason). The correctly spelled Mastodon was a separate band altogether. Still – I never bothered listening to Mastodon. That’s about to change. One of my favorite YouTubers, Mary Spender, did a video this week demonstrating a Mastodon lick, and I loved what I heard. So – what follows below is a honest, first opinion on a handful of Mastodon songs. Let’s get to it!
Curl of the Burl
Right off the bat, this song rocks. The guitars are strong and loud from the get go, and continue through the rest of the song. Curl of the Burl obviously takes a great deal of influence from Alice in Chains. Apparently, Curl of the Burl is one of Mastodon’s biggest songs, and I can see why. The song really does deliver a hard presence.
What I really love about this song the most is the coda. A slower melody change with a heavy delay on the vocals. It sounds ethereal. And then that guitar solo! Wow. So far I’m impressed with my first attempt to listen to Mastodon. If Curl of the Burl is any indication, I’ll certainly like this band.
Dry Bone Valley
While from the same album as Curl of the Burl, Dry Bone Valley feels a lot heavier. Dry Bone Valley starts slowly, almost majestically, as a couple electric guitars sound as though they’re trying to imitate a violin – very slow, very cautious. Then the thunder comes! Drums – so many drums. And guitars loudly chant at us. I can tell I needed to listen to this song at a higher volume, time to switch my wireless headphones to my Sennheiser cans. This song begs for full blast! Play this song loud, just don’t play this song at 3 AM, the neighbors might kill you.
One thing about the song, Dry Bone Valley sounds very strife driven – there’s an important mission, one that probably involves a fight for someone’s life. With a quick look at the lyrics I find the lyrics match the sound. Look at the first verse..
Head down running from the beast.Dry Bone Valley lyrics © BMG Rights Management
Break neck speeding, taken down on my birth.
Black feet scrape the scarlet dripping blood
Rain come down, take me with your flood
These lyrics are pretty intense, not to mention poetically impressive. As I listen to Mastodon further – I realize I’m diving into a deep, dark, but lush climate of lyrics and sounds. I really can’t wait to hear what the next song sounds like!
The sounds of Sleeping Giant gives us an allusion of, well, something really big sleeping. We don’t want it to wake up, because when it does all hell will break loose.
Sleeping Giant starts slower than the last two songs, and with a fairly long instrumental opening. I hear Metallica influences, perhaps The Call of Ktulu. The vocals finally appear at 1:30 into the song. I seriously thought this was going to be an instrumental. When the lyrics do finally appear, we get some sort of delay, and maybe a little bit of studio engineering bending the vocals, ala My Bloody Valentine.
Of the three songs I’ve heard thus far. Sleeping Giant sounds more like progressive rock. There’s a lot of tempo changes and a lot of changes in the song period. Perhaps the most striking changes come with the spoken words at the end of the song, coupled with an intermediate guitar riff. Honestly, this entire section kind of jars me out of the grove of the song. The rest of the song fascinates me, but there’s something about the spoken vocals I just can’t get behind.
As I listen to this song, I realize I lied! I have heard one Mastodon song before: I am Ahab was on my literature rocks! playlist. Both Megalodon and I am Abab come from the same album – a concept album about the book Moby Dick.
How does Megalodon sound? The complex guitars on Megalodon shatter your ears (in a good way). Certainly the guitars hold the biggest strength of the song. The vocals sound mostly shouted at the listener. In the first few verses, this shouting feels quite annoying. At the end of the song, however, the shouting works incredibly well.
A curiosity of this song, we get a clear and concise feeling of when the song ends. As the guitars build, and then slow down – we’re like…this is the end. And we’re right!
March of the Fire Ants
By this point, I expect a Mastodon song to start with loud guitars, and that’s exactly what we get at the beginning of March of the Fire Ants. Loud guitars, thundering drums. One thing unique about the guitars on March of the Fire Ants, they sound very rhythmic, as though they’re a war chant. Granted – this serves the title of the song well – I can see a bunch of cartoon ants marching to the beginning of this song.
As the vocals start, the lead vocalist growls at us. I’m not sure if I’m ok with the growling, but I forgive it, mainly because the instruenation is so amazing. The back and forth between the rhythm and lead guitars makes me shiver.
About two thirds of the way into the song, we get an interesting transition. The vocals stop, and we get an almost dueling guitars scenario. As I listen to Mastodon more and more, I realize the band’s greatest strengths lies in their guitar melodies.
Colony of the Birchmen
Just like Curl of the Burl, Colony of the Birchmen sounds like an Alice in Chains song. That’s not a bad thing mind you – I love Alice in Chains and if I were to start a band, I have the feeling my music would take a lot of inspiration from AIC as well.
Maybe it’s the passionate playing of the guitars in Colony of the Birchmen. I can tell, lead guitarist Brent Hinds carefully calculates the wall of noise that is his guitar playing. At time during Colony of the Birchmen, Hinds plays so fast that one has to really focus in order to hear the individual notes.
I’ll also say that I much prefer the vocals in Colony of the Birchmen to the vocals of March of the Fire Ants. Less screaming, more melodic. That’s just a personal preference mind you.
All in all, I would say Colony of the Birchmen might be my favorite Mastodon song yet! As I listen to Mastodon play this masterpiece of a song, I feel like slipping into a speed metal trance. It’s a good thing.
It’s clear by the 10 minute length, and the full title of this song (The Czar: Usurper / Escape / Martyr / Spiral) that this song will be quite the epic.
The first part: Usurper gives us a sad feeling, as we hear a cry of “don’t stay, runaway” sung in unison by a defacto choir. Escape gives us a feeling of flight and dread. As the Czar runs, we feel an urgency through the guitars, and through the energetic vocals. The Czar flees for his life! Part three, Martyr, slows the song to a much slower tempo and quiets the instrumentation briefly, almost to signify the end of the Czar’s journey. The instrumentation builds once more, the story continues, and we learn that the Czar dies at the hands of his enemies. In spiral, we get a reprise of Usurper. We find the accusing voices, and presumingly the Czars executioners, have taken his place. And just like the previous Czar, they have their own accusers. The cycle continues.
As far as the plot of the song, The Czar certainly feels the richest of all the Mastodon songs I’ve heard thus far, and even gives us a bit of subtext to chew on. Not bad! I’m definitely adding this song to my regular listening rotation.
Blood and Thunder
Blood and Thunder starts out the album of “Leviathan” (the Moby Dick concept album) hard and fast. The cries of “White Whale” in the chorus tell us that we’re about to go on an adventure. We’re going to chase something that, if we do indeed find it, might end up killing us. That doesn’t matter – we have to find the white whale!
Captain Ahab himself has a few lines, screaming instructions at his crew. Ahab’s monomania intensifies as the song moves us along. The vocals echo this intensity, as they nearly chant Ahab’s lines. The chants almost sound like the rantings of a mad man. A nice nod to the building tension in the book between Ahab and Starbuck, as the hunt for the white whale commences.
The brilliance of this song is that it puts us on the Pequod itself. We, the listeners are part of the crew. We’re just trying to make a living by whaling. It’s dangerous work, and we have no idea our captain’s monomania will lead us to our deaths.
Grade: A- (the grade I should have gotten on my american lit paper on Moby Dick. My professor gave me a B. I’m still bitter).
As we start Oblivion, we can hear a metronomic cadence in the tempo. This cadence builds as though signalling a building in time and space. As though we’re being pulled into a black hole.
There’s a swapping of vocalist in Oblivion. One vocalist recalls what they did in the past, and how they got to where they are. One vocalist tells of their current state – lost in oblivion.
At about two thirds of the way through the song, the song focuses on the lead guitar, which serves as a lament for the speaker’s current, and probable permanent position.
As I listen to Mastodon, their songwriting stands out as complex. Oblivion is a prime example. I’ve described the pieces of Oblivion, but the pieces are nothing if they don’t work together. And they all work together wonferfully. We get a back story, we get the present. and we even get emotions! This is amazing song writing!
Should you listen to Mastodon?
Do you like hard rock and metal? If so, then the short answer is yes. If I calculate all the grades given, the final ends up somewhere in A- territory. That’s not bad.
I will say that sometimes the vocals get annoying, but the guitars make up for the vocals in every song. Even the most annoying vocals find a balance with the screaming and pounding of Mastodon’s guitars.
So – that’s the long and the short of it. Mastodon rocks. I will certainly listen to Mastodon on a regular basis from now on. Matondon’s music is deep and inspiring. Their songs, though often dark, make me feel something. At the end of the day, I’m sad that I waited so long to listen to this incredible band. I can’t wait to listen to and dissect every album, piece by piece.