Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Mastodon - Leviathan


Released 2004 on Relapse Records
Reviewed by Jasonaparkes, 11/02/2007ce

1.Blood and Thunder (3:48)
2.I am Ahab (2:45)
3.Seabeast (4:15)
4.Island (3:26)
5.Iron Tusk (3:03)
6.Megalodon (4:22)
7.Naked Burn (3:42)
8.Aqua Dementia (4:10)
9.Hearts Alive (13:39)
10.Joseph Merrick (3:33)

I don’t know if there’s something in the air, but lately I have gone out of my way to listen to stuff outside of my usual listening – while I might have fooled myself that I was uber eclectic, I was getting worried by the fact I bought a lot of albums by the usual suspects (The Fall in the reissues department, Sonic Youth, Can reissues/related Krautrock, folky wenches like Joanna Newsom & Isobel Campbell, Wu-Tang hip hop, and a lot of Throbbing Gristle stuff I didn’t have) in the last year – it all seems at times as predictable as the mainstream stuff I slate others for buying. I guess there are certain prejudices against acts of a certain genre or appearance, so I’m listening to stuff from those places I wouldn’t normally go. This has involved listening to an album by Amy Winehouse, buying a Jaz Coleman-classical piece based on Pink Floyd songs (the Roger Dean cover is so hilarious it has to be owned!), exploring the un alt-side of country, playing some early Genesis (the Peter Gabriel era disc of that triple best of which came my way when my mother didn’t want it), considering whether Our Favourite Shop by The Style Council is 80s-jazz wank or The Village Green Preservation Society of its time, and finding out if the second side of Elizium was unsung, or just ponderous goth Floyd (I quite liked that, though it needs remastering, just didn’t sound huge enough!). This process hasn’t gone as far as Sting’s Lute album or a deep consideration of the slightly irritating Lady Sovereign, or a quest to find out if Bush’s Albini-produced album is a lost classic, but it has lead me to Mastodon.

As a teen I had a brief Iron Maiden phase, possibly before I discovered the joys of masturbation, females, cider or The Smiths, and briefly flirted with metal. While I got more into the indie-alternative thing I was probably in denial – though sessions of boozing in the woods in a dull town in Buckinghamshire found a brief group of outsiders doing compilation tapes to drink Thunderbird and Vodka to. One of our bande a part was a confirmed metaller, so the soundtrack featured stuff like AC/DC, Celtic Frost, Metallica, Motorhead & Napalm Death alongside stuff like The Mission, REM, The Smiths and The Wonderstuff. A few years later working in a record shop in 1990, just before the grunge phenomenon, I was exposed to stuff that I’d have probably written off as metal in the past – Jane’s Addiction, Soundgarden, Tad – and began to work through my petty aversion. I know there’s kind of a crossover between metal and the alternative scene, typified by Slayer’s presence on a the soundtrack to River’s Edge alongside The Wipers, while bands I have liked such as Black Flag (My War-era/stuff like Annihilate the Week), Brain Donor, Butthole Surfers, Comets on Fire, Ministry, Queens of the Stone Age & Screaming Trees have not been far from this genre. The petty aversion is probably still there, which might be down to the fact the genre is quite amusing, watching a reformed Dinosaur Jr in Birmingham last year I was quite bored by the metal elements, so it’s still there…

While Comets on Fire can be more than justified as their roots are apparent in acts like Blue Cheer, certain Krautrock, Hawkwind and The Stooges, it’s probably harder to justify Mastodon – their roots are very metal, Leviathan reminding me of acts like Kyuss, Metallica, and Slayer. The four-piece have origins in bands such as Four Hour Fogger, Knuckle, Lethargy and Today is the Day, initial releases including 2001’s Lifesblood e.p. (later reissued on the compilation Call of the Mastodon) and debut album Remission (2002). Leviathan came a few years later and is a vague concept album centring on Herman Meville’s Moby Dick – which the ridiculously wonderful cover gives away, alongside such snappy song titles as I am Ahab, Seabeast, & Iron Tusk!

I don’t know if it is the policy of listening to things I normally would have written off, or if it is the disturbing zeitgeist at present, but a huge angsty noise like this seems to do the trick at present. Stuff like Comets on Fire w/Burning Star Core, Neurosis (who have been compared to Swans!) amd Wolf Eyes has been reassuring noise, an exhausting and extreme reaction. Mastodon seems part of that, despite the comedy metal elements and the fact I’ve seen Spinal Tap a few times. They don’t fuck around – comparisons to …And Justice for All-Metallica and Rush appear to ignore the fact the songs are tight as hell and are generally in the three to four minute length. Having listened to lots of old Swans records, Ministry, stuff like Negative Approach & Flipper, and even the reissue of Vision Thing, a deep need for riffs and hollers is apparent in me.

The opening Blood and Thunder pretty much tears into the heart of things straight away, around the 30-second mark screams of “white whale!!!” are abound, as we’re in a world of sludgy metal that sounds as Leviathan as the title of the record. I am Ahab is weirder, this is where the term ‘technical metal’ is probably coming into play – a fast riff develops, sounding like a hardcore Metallica, something angsty that sounds less like shouting and more like singing occurs and just after two minutes in the song seems to be hitting something that sounds like a math rock band playing Screaming Trees. The ‘Don (as they’re never called) are very metal, but look closer and there’s all sorts going on, from the dreaded genre of prog rock, to psychedelia, to stoner rock, and with as complex jazz elements as a band like Tortoise.

As with the more recent Blood Mountain (2006), the first two tracks seem more expected, while the third song changes tact completely. Seabeast takes some time to open and is closer to stuff like Masters of Reality and QOTSA, the two singers playing the melodic Josh Homme-type vocal against metal shouting, the chiming riffs as the song continues giving way to a cortex realigning thrash. After the relative lull of Seabeast, comes a three minute or so thrash entitled Island, which makes you feel like Ahab on Dexedrine; this is swiftly followed by the hilariously titled Iron Tusk (heck, you just don’t get enough song titles like that!!) and then the different Megalodon (another mythical seabeastie) which has jazzy drumming with a spacey sound not a million miles from someone like Slint prior to sections that get faster and faster, seeming to shift from a metal approximation of Mission of Burma, into a hardcore take on someone like Slayer. It’s all very odd, I guess it’s metal?

Naked Burn and Aqua Dementia are another double whammy, the former again closer to stuff like QOTSA (Homme appeared on their last album), while Aqua Dementia sounds like some prog-ish rock played by someone like Middle Class or Scream. The hardcore element locks with a vast metal riff evoking a very strange feeling and making me want to bomb Mordor with napalm (…or something).

Leviathan bows out in suitably big ass style, the epic Hearts Alive sounding a bit Zep and a bit math rock, before shifting into more of that angsty metal, then mutating into a mellower section which is a bit Explosions in the Sky until the stock metal shouting comes in. Perhaps Mastodon are playing off their metal sound against alternative/hardcore influences? The song veers off into a head-spinning sequence that is probably very prog indeed, seeming to be endless – nothing left to say. So obviously time for a closing instrumental in the form of Joseph Merrick, a relative of the earlier chestnut Elephant Man (there’s even a song called Ol’ Nessie!!!). JM is a spacey acoustic piece which builds and builds as keyboards are introduced – a reflective end of journey song, though I’m not quite sure of the link between Melville and Merrick!

Mastodon are creamed over in the metal mags, which I don’t read, so wouldn’t have discovered them that way. Leviathan is quite ridiculous, but with enough markers to recognise (hardcore,prog, metal, etc) then it’s a trip. The more recent Blood Mountain has garnered decent reviews, am sad that they didn’t release it as one very long track as they were intending, but this album works more for me at present. A band sung about in quarters I was oblivious to, an album that should probably be owned for the cover alone, and not the usual kind of head music. A different kind of trip then…

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