rom the moment that Mastodon moved from indie Relapse to Reprise, a Warner Bros. subsidiary, metalheads have speculated on how long it will take for the band to get dropped. Malicious talk, for sure, but in it lies an element of truth. Unlike Lamb of God or Shadows Fall, the other major label signings from the American metal underground, Mastodon doesn't trade in hooks or choruses. The band combines influences like Today Is the Day, Iron Maiden, Rush, Led Zeppelin, old Metallica, and Southern rock into an unmistakably unique sound. Their full-length debut Remission was a sprawling, powerful classic. Leviathan added a Moby Dick theme and tighter songs. As the band became known as a fierce live act (ask anyone who saw Mastodon hold its own on tour with Slayer in '04), major labels started circling.
What they, and the countless hipsters and pundits who glommed onto Leviathan, saw in Mastodon is unclear (Decibel recently published a fascinating discussion of "hipster metal"). Mastodon does not have a friendly sound. The tones are tough, the vocals are gruff, and the songs are—to use the p-word—proggy. A band that sounds like this should not be hip. Whether due to herd mentality, adventurous A&R, or, less cynically, good old-fashioned hard work, Mastodon is now labelmates with Green Day. Let's hope Reprise gives them even 1/100th the attention Green Day gets.
Blood Mountain doesn't make it easy for Reprise. These songs are by far the most complex they've written. While this by itself is no fault, the songs don't stick. The riffs do; there are eerie, jangly figures here that rival the acoustic intros to classic Metallica epics. However, songs twist and turn so much that they cause dizziness. This is a Mastodon trademark, of course, and it's admirable that Reprise let the band indulge its prog tendencies. But these songs end up so far away from their origins that they lose the power that, say, "March of the Fire Ants" had with its insistent, hammer-of-the-gods riff.
The result is an album of many highlights but not much visceral or emotional impact. "Circle of Cysquatch" sports a cool vocoder effect. "The Wolf Is Loose" charges out of the gate Motörhead-style, then loses the plot in harmonized scale runs. The goofy filtered noises and manic odd meters of "Bladecatcher" suggest Rush scoring a Looney Tunes cat-and-mouse chase. "This Mortal Coil" has bafflingly earnest '70s classic rock riffs. On previous albums, Mastodon would slyly slip in the occasional Southern rock lick. Here, they let that side hang out completely, especially on album closer "Pendulous Skin." The song's acoustic guitars, sung-through-a-telephone vocals, and mournful organ make for a prog rock soundtrack to crying in one's beer.
Despite the byzantine songs, the newly minted clean singing (which strangely recall Prong's Tommy Victor at times), and the unabashed classic rock worship, some constants remain. The guitar tones are still nicely crunchy, and Brann Dailor's drumming is as crisply dexterous as ever. For one glorious song, this all comes together. "Sleeping Giant" slithers through moody riffs and spiraling runs en route to a heavenly, pearlescent solo that's one of metal's finest moments this year. Otherwise, the album's a mess. It's a beautiful mess, to be sure, and perhaps its wackiness is the sound of a band at play. Whether Reprise will tolerate this on its dime remains to be seen.