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Mastodon simplify the heavy subject matter

Positive gains
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  November 16, 2011

CLEANED-UP SLUDGE Mastodon’s fifth album, The Hunter, is lean and mean, breaking free from the conceptual weight of previous outings.

Viewed from the outside, heavy metal has always appeared unnecessarily negative, obsessed with morbid imagery and anti-social attitudes. But any careful consideration will bear out metal's unwaveringly positive outlook: even if you never break out the album lyric sheets, the sheer energy exuded is often more affirmative than that of most other music. Ozzy, Sabbath, Priest (see "Rob Halford gives Judas Priest one last spin"), Maiden — they've all made music that feels great, that makes you want to pump your fist. So it is with Mastodon, a low-tuned Atlanta quartet who have been finding ways to pummel majesty out of the basic sludge of metal for the past 12 years, and in the process produced a glimmer of light amidst life's grimness.

"Positivity is a beautiful thing," is how bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders puts it when I speak to him as he paces backstage, on a tour stop at the Depot in Salt Lake City. He's referring to the band's penchant for building almost-mythological might out of the feelings that surround tragedy — something they know something about. Their last album, 2009's Crack The Skye (Reprise), appeared to be an elliptical prog-puzzler about astral travel and Hawking time wormholes, but it was really about the suicide of drummer Brann Dailor's younger sister when he was a teenager. Similarly, their latest, this summer's The Hunter (Roadrunner), is so-named in honor of guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds's older brother, Brad, who passed away of a heart attack during the recording of the album while on a hunting trip. But if you listen to Mastodon's music, it's miles away from the bummerama downerisms that one might expect of music sourced from misery — because, in a word, it's triumphant.

"When tragedy strikes," Sanders explains, "there are many ways to deal with it, and if you can find the energy to take something from a dark and negative place and shed a beautiful light from that negativity, that's a triumphant thing. Thankfully with our band we can take something horrible, something tragic, channel it through the heart that we call Mastodon."

If Crack the Skye saw the band couching that triumph over negativity in a cloak of prog-complexity, The Hunter takes an abrupt shift. "Writing Skye, we'd head to our rehearsal space and it felt like we were going to an algebra class," says Sanders, "working these giant mathematical equations to figure out how to shoehorn this giant segue of a bridge on top of this very complex verse, or trying, like, 97 different angles of an arrangement to see what works best. This time, we thought 'Let's not do any of that.' We wanted rehearsals to be more of an energetic release as an outlet, instead of laboring over these crazy-ass, long, complex songs again."

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 See all articles by: DANIEL BROCKMAN

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