I'm on hold with Warner Brothers Records, and a pretty typical modern pop song is blaring from my receiver. The treble is too high, blurring the melody and the tone of the singer's voice, but she has a piercing bubble-gum delivery that resembles many of the blandly hooked starlets clogging today's FM airwaves. Mercifully, the track is cut short a voice that clicks in to tell me that I'm on the line with Troy Sanders, bassist and singer for Atlanta-based hard-rock act Mastodon.
The conversation begins as an exploration of the band's new album The Hunter. Sanders explains that the creative process was more organic this time out. Mastodon leaped into national relevance about seven years ago on the strength of a sludgy sound that twisted and tangled with prog-rock complexity and a series of baffling, but fascinating concepts.
2004's Leviathan features a nautical story loosely based on Moby Dick. 2006's Blood Mountain concerns a hallucination-ridden attempt to survive in the wilderness. 2009's Crack the Skye uses the suicide of drummer Bränn Dailor's sister Skye as the impetus for a multidimensional tragedy that focuses on a paraplegic who goes out of his body to visit czarist Russia.
Skye is also the band's most musically challenging effort, a melodic ganglion that forgoes many of the band's heavier elements, sometimes sounding more like King Crimson than it does the Melvins. The density of the music and the highly emotional songs made the subsequent tour an exhausting, if highly rewarding experience. Things didn't get easier in the aftermath. Guitarist/singer Brent Hinds' brother died unexpectedly during work on The Hunter. Tired and put out, Sanders says they approached their music as a release, dumping the complicated structures of the past for a more immediate approach.
“This time around we’d plug in our gear, someone would start making some noise, someone would start playing something that grabbed our attention, and we’d gravitate towards that and build on that, build on that, build on that until it became a song,” he explains. “We don’t need to get more technical just for the sake of people expecting us to be more technical. You know, ‘That sounds great — verse-chorus-verse-chorus. That’s killer. I love it. High five! Let’s get out of here, and go eat tacos.’”
The Hunter is a solid record to be sure, built of chugging, riff-bespeckled blasts that rarely run past the five-minute mark. They're insistent and cathartic, shot through with howling choruses that overflow with angst, but there's also something seemingly calculated about them. An album like this is exactly the right move for Mastodon at this point in their career. Skye was their first album to crack the top 10 of Billboard's album chart. The Hunter repeated the accomplishment. A collection of concise, catchy jams is a great way to lure in suddenly interested ears. Sanders says it's simply a happy coincidence, insisting that the band never bases artistic decisions on what listeners might want.
“We still write music that makes the four of us happy, first and foremost,” he says. “We never feel pressure on our shoulders that we’ve got to make a better record than the last one. We never second-guess ourselves. What’s the rest of the world going to think? That’s out of our control.”
Still, if the band was to cater to a larger audience, they couldn't do a better job. Take “Curl of the Burl,” which lumbers to life on a weighty guitar and bass combo before clicking into an insistent, solo-powered romp. Guitars shred in simple, but scintillating patterns around a chorus that's pure rock-radio perfection. “It's just the curl of the burl/ It's just the curl of the burl/ That's just the way of the world,” Sanders and Hinds sing together, intensifying their delivery with each repetitively structured line. The words explore an appealingly pretentious concept, keying on how drug addicts will cut down trees for their burls — large knots that are extremely valuable to furniture makers — and sell them to fund their habit. In three minutes and 40 seconds, it neatly condenses Mastodon's appeal into an approachable package that most any listener could digest. It might not be calculated, but like Metallica before them, the yoke of an economic, radio-ready approach fits the band quite well.
“We still feel like we’re ascending the mountain,” Sanders says, reiterating that there is no map to Mastodon's success. “Could we strip back and do some crazy storyline or a flashback of prog or something? Where the future will lead us is completely unknown at the moment, but the groove that we’re in feels great. We’re loving every minute of it.”
— Jordan Lawrence is assistant editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Mastodon, with Dillinger Escape Plan and Red Fang
where: The Orange Peel
when: Tuesday, Nov. 29 (8 p.m. $25/$27/$28.50. theorangepeel.net)