Ten years ago today (…and like, a month…shhhhh), Mastodon’s Leviathan came out to, as far as I’ve been able to find, essentially universal acclaim. For all of that, I’ve only been able to find two retrospective pieces (one, at hitthefloor.com (http://www.hitthefloor.com/music/rock-metal/looking-back-mastodon-leviathan-10-years/) is basically a (well written) review. The other, over at Violent Resonance talks a lot about the themes of the record (http://violentresonance.com/return-to-the-gallows-of-the-deep-reflections-on-ten-years-of-mastodons-leviathan/)). These are both glowing pieces, but they’re also fairly impersonal. Guys. This record is fucking great. Leviathan is Master of Puppets for the 21st century, at least in terms of how much I care about it. And this is my blog, so those are the only terms that matter. In 2008, when I was driving my mom’s car to school, I only had one tape. It had most of Master of Puppets on one side and most of Leviathan on the other. It was the most frustrating yet awesome tape anyone has ever made, because it cut “Orion” off RIGHT BEFORE the awesome bass interlude, and cut off “Hearts Alive” right before things got reeeeeeally heavy. Maybe because I am not the most intelligent person in the world (why else would I be starting a blog about music instead of becoming an engineer like my mom wanted?), but it would get me *every* single time. I’d be ready to scream BUCKET OF LEAD/BATTLE IS SHE with all the power of my seventeen year-old lungs and angst, only to hear that infuriating *click**clack*. The only thing that soothed me was, moments later, hearing Hetfield on the nylon strings as “Battery” awoke on the stereo.
I’m surprised the steering wheel survived its daily beatings.
Leviathan is, as others have noted, a smart damn record. Only four of the ten songs exceed 4 minutes. Only one exceeds 4:30, which is, of course, the astounding “Hearts Alive,” clocking in at nearly fourteen minutes. In a genre that revels in long, self-indulgent tracks, Mastodon manages to cram songs that might last seven or eight minutes in other hands into pop-song length. Listen to “Megalodon,” the second longest song on the track. It is shorter than “Some Nights,” by Fun and manages to have enough riffs to spawn five or six full songs, including a goddamn banjo break before the second minute is over. Between Brent’s chicken pickin’ and the big, time-bending riffs of the second half, “Megalodon” might be Mastodon at their most Mastodony. This segues into “Naked Burn,” one of my very favorite songs ever (my dad once said it sounded like the Stone Temple Pilots wrote a metal song). Fun fact: I’ve seen Mastodon five times, and they *finally* answered my plea and played “Naked Burn” on their spring tour. I was probably the happiest person in the entire room while that was going on. That same show, they opened with “Hearts Alive,” one of the coolest, heaviest, bad-ass-ist tracks out there. How do you even start a show with that? When you’re Mastodon, apparently, and your second record is already the stuff of metal lore.
It’s important to look to what was going on in metal around when Leviathan came out. Remission had already been out, which is an excellent though less unified effort. Layne Staley had died two years ago. Metallica’s St. Anger and associated documentary had come out the year after, and Megadeth’s The System has Failed came out two weeks after Mastodon’s record dropped. I’m aware that other bands existed at the time, of course, but we’re talking about some big names; the popular faces of heavy music. St. Anger is, to say the least, a polarizing record. The System has Failed is less controversial, but also to me less ambitious. Metallica was maybe the biggest band in the world since the Black Album came out, and while die-hard metal fans hated everything they did in the 90s, a lot of other people liked the Load/Re-Load era enough to buy records and see shows in epic numbers, and the change to a more hard rock style made coherent sense after the fairly big change in style and aesthetic that came with the Black Album. St. Anger wasn’t a return to form, it was a crazy shot in the dark. It’s weird and funky and, despite having some serious energy and some cool riffs, there is enough wrong with it that it’s mostly hated. The system has Failed was a more typical return to form for Megadeth, complete with chromatic riffs that work better than they really should and lots of whining (a diss track at Lars Ulrich? Seriously?). But the thing with The System has Failed is that’s basically trying to be Rust in Peace. The third thing that happened in 2004 in metal? Dimebag Darrel got murdered in December. Pantera had already imploded at that point, but until then, there was still hope in the form of Damageplan. So, to sum up: the two biggest metal bands of the 90s that weren’t retarded were no more, and the two biggest metal bands of the late eighties were either stuck in the past or therapeutically using protocols to go on wild tangents. Shit was a mess. Mastodon came to the rescue with a record that showed where metal could go. It’s thrashy, it’s sludgy, it’s dexterous, it’s furry, and it absolutely kicks ass.
I could go track-by-track, but that would really just be retreading old ground. The album has been around long enough for everyone who cares to already know their favorite tracks and why they’re good. The point of this post (the first of my new blog!) is to talk about the entire record. The big thing everyone knows but I haven’t mentioned? It’s a concept record. About Moby Dick. Now, Moby Dick is a story about obsession, and the very first track, “Blood and Thunder,” sets up the theme of the unobtainable with the chorus “White whale/holy grail.” It’s that thing which you want more than anything, but the quest for it is unending and probably will destroy the seeker. I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like the quest to make a career playing heavy metal, or to record the perfect record. Leviathan has at its heart a conflict between the band’s own goal to achieve the unachievable, and their self-awareness of the difficultly and destructive potential of that task. It is almost ironic, and happily so, that mastodon have been able to make their living as musicians in a genre that has always been just off the radar.