Over the course of almost two decades, Mastodon have been pushing their own boundaries, both in terms of quality and musical variety, and established themselves as one of heavy music’s most treasured bands. In that time, their back catalogue has become a sprawling, epic body of work that they’ve been able to take to some of the globe’s most hallowed venues. They’ve conquered the realm of chin-stroking prog-metal with some of the most intricate heavy albums of recent times, while at the same time developing a melodic, accessible streak of the highest quality that has seen their music receive significant radio airtime and land them invitations onto some of TV’s most prominent music spots (how many other heavy bands have you seen on Jools Holland lately?).
Truly, Mastodon are modern metal icons, sitting in the top tier of the genre as it is today, and they’re back with their eighth full-length, ‘Emperor of Sand,’ and they’re all set to take it to Download, too.
Even for a band who have collectively wrestled with as many demons as Mastodon have in the past, the road to ‘Emperor of Sand’ was a treacherous one. In the lead up to the record, the mother of the band’s guitarist Bill Kelliher was diagnosed with brain cancer in May last year, before she tragically passed away in September. Bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders’ wife has also been battling breast cancer, while guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds was involved in a motorcycle accident. Inevitably, then, this is a record that revolves around the human struggle to accept one’s own mortality.
“The record was always going to be about that [mortality],” explains lyricist and drummer, Brann Dailor, speaking from a New York hotel room. “It was just the thing on everyone’s mind. So instead of just ignoring the mastodon in the room,” he quips, “we decided to tackle it head on.”
“Instead of just ignoring the mastodon in the room, we decided to tackle it head on.”
Writing music has always been the answer for Mastodon, and so picking up their guitars and, as he puts it, “going down into the basement to riff-out” was always going to be the result of such pain.
“My mom’s been really sick since I was a kid and it’s always been a source of frustration that I can’t make her feel better,” Brann continues. “So there’s the distraction of going and playing music – I don’t even know if that’s the best word - but it’s a good place to put all that stuff. If you can express yourself in your art,” he points out, ‘it’s the best outlet. It’s been like that for me since I was a kid, and everyone else in the band would say the same.
“It’s a total cliche but most musicians that I know - especially heavy metal dudes - were probably not on the best path and music served as a way out and something else to do besides drugs all the time,” Brann goes on. “For me, that was very much true. When I was a kid, all my friends were a bunch of headbangers and everybody was pretty broke and we were doing as many drugs as we could, but since I played drums, I felt like I shouldn’t consume as much because playing drums was more important to me and I wanted to be good at that, so I spent a lot of time behind my drums behind myself just playing. Whereas the other friends of mine that weren’t musicians maybe didn’t have that. They were spending more time getting in trouble, where as I always had something else to do.
“So yeah,” Brann concludes. “Someone gets sick and you have new pieces of information coming in from doctors all the time. Instead of just sitting there and dwelling on it, you pick up your instrument and those feelings and emotions find their way into the music.”
You’ve gotta have the balls to face criticism. It might hurt, but you can’t be afraid of it.”
That backdrop, of course, would always result in a heavy listen, but as Mastodon are Mastodon, they’ve added the sort of narrative that has become their trademark. Here, the album’s protagonist has been handed down a death sentence by an evil sultan in a desert - obviously - and he’s running from that, instead. It’s a simple, yet enthralling story that the band outline in desert-dwelling tones.
‘EoS’, in that sense, is classic Mastodon, but as their discography swells in breadth, - becoming more varied as it expands - their fanbase grows harder to please. 2011’s ‘The Hunter’ and 2014’s ‘Once More Round The Sun’ saw the band facing criticism for taking a less dense, more radio-friendly approach to their previous records and when ‘Show Yourself’, EoS’ super-melodic second track, was unveiled back in February, the comment sections were once again alight with vitriol from The Early Stuff Brigade who weren’t entirely on board with the song’s accessibility.
“Honestly, I was questioning that song myself right up until the very end, because it was so simple and I wanted to do something more progressive,” reveals Brann, “but in the context of the record it just works so well.”
“A lot of heavy metal warriors drew their swords after ‘Show Yourself’ came out and I just wanted to get up onto a platform and scream, ‘No, wait! You don’t understand!’” he adds. “Not that that would make them like that song necessarily, but still.”
And they should’ve waited, because while ‘EoS’ is still a record with potential for the same level of mainstream appreciation as ‘The Hunter; or ‘Once More…’, ‘Show Yourself’ isn’t entirely representative of the album as a whole. In its entirety, it’s as multi-faceted and challenging as Mastodon have ever been. Patience, as they say, is a virtue.
“That whole idea is why I’m not particularly into the idea of releasing singles,” Brann concurs. “We’re a band who write albums in full and that’s the way the music works best.”
No matter the effect of the album’s first impressions, however, Mastodon are a band that stand by their music and they aren’t fazed by the criticism. Well, not entirely, at least.
“Ultimately, we’re a few dudes sitting around in a basement playing a bunch of riffs.”
“I’d love to be one of those people that claims to not care at all, but I do unfortunately,” Brann confesses. “I’m a total people pleaser and I want people to like our stuff. That said, I don’t care enough not to put it out. As an artist, you’ve gotta have the balls to face that criticism. It might hurt, but you can’t be afraid of it.
“We make the music for ourselves and then we show it to them and see if they like it. Nothing we do is for the fans and nor should it be. You’ve gotta write from the heart and write what you want to write, y’know? It might not always be what people wanna hear, but hey that’s just an opinion and that’s fine.
“If you’re lucky enough to have a long career in music, there’s always going to be a section of your fans that don’t like what you’re doing right now.” Brann pauses. “There are tons of bands that I dig who I came in on for three or four albums that are now doing things that I’m not feeling. That’s fine. Also there’s bands that I really trust who have maybe put out a record or two that I don’t dig at first, but then I go back to them years later and it turns out I love them. It happens.
“Ultimately,” Brann concludes, “we’re a few dudes sitting around in a basement playing a bunch of riffs and figuring out which ones we like the most. Nothing’s changed since we were teenagers. It’s the same exact feeling; it’s the same exact process. There’s a little more pressure maybe, but when you’re down in the basement you aren’t really thinking about that. It’s not like, ‘Ooh, we better not do that cause they’ll be mad’. It’s just ‘Oh, that sounds cool, I like that.’”
As it has for a long time now, that approach has served Mastodon perfectly on ‘Emperor of Sand’. Having channeled all their pain, stood up to their doubters, and played the hell out of those riffs in that basement, the band have served up yet another rager of a record that will no doubt propel them further along their seemingly infinite upward trajectory. Just don’t expect them to change any time soon.
Mastodon’s new album ‘Emperor of Sand’ is out now.