While regularly seeking to nudge their own sound forward, progressive metal maestros Mastodon are simultaneously “dragging the corpse of rock’n’roll into a new life”. Guitarist Bill Kelliher tells about dodging convention.
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Suggesting to axeman Bill Kelliher that selected riffage from Mastodon’s newly issued LP Once More ‘Round The Sun faintly echoes the sludge metal glory of 2002’s mammoth Remission results in him thanking for the compliment, while acknowledging having received similar feedback elsewhere. However, he’s also swift to clarify that the Atlanta metallers aren’t merely content to recycle past glories.
Such a mindset readily applies to Once More…, their sixth album. Although instantly recognisable as Mastodon – the axeman describes it as “a pretty well-rounded record” – it offers a curious contrast. Aside from hints of the quartet’s heaviest leanings in eons, elsewhere the new LP exhibits some of their most accessible fare yet, crafting a natural successor to 2011’s The Hunter. Sources of inspiration are again detectable (Kelliher refers to past cuts in this vein as “tribute songs”), but being forward-thinking remains a crucial facet of their modus operandi, much like their wide-reaching heavy rock forebears.
That said, continuing to be innovative is a lofty challenge for a band who announced themselves as potentially a once-in-a-generation act via 2004’s Moby Dick- inspired master class Leviathan, before reinforcing said reputation with 2009’s grandiose concept piece Crack The Skye. Such milestones can be more akin to a millstone around the neck when half-a-dozen albums into a career. However, an ongoing commitment to self-improvement and broadening their own scope helps avoid some common creative pitfalls.
“People are always bitching and complaining that our new record doesn’t sound like the last record,” the guitarist relays. He’s articulate and in cheerful spirits despite speaking during the early hours of the morning from Switzerland. “It’s like, well, that’s who we are. We are constantly evolving and we’re not AC/DC, we’re not Slayer, or The Ramones. Those guys, you know what you’re going to get when you buy those records. They’re great at doing what they do but we’re not that band. We continually evolve, and hopefully in a positive way, to keep getting more progressive in our own way.
“I feel Mastodon is an entity that can take different forms and different shapes, and do what we [want to] do to it, be our own monster. We don’t have to conform to any, ‘Oh, you guys are a heavy metal band; you can’t step outside those lines’. It’s like, ‘ Yeah, we can, we can do whatever we want’. We’re just four guys with instruments in our hands; we can play whatever the fuck we want.”
So, decides to outright ask – the term “progressive” gets bandied about far too often by
We’re just four guys With instruments in our hands; We can play Whatever the fuck We Want.”
critics, but how does he define it? A lengthy, but informative discourse follows. “It just means you’re dragging the corpse of rock’n’roll into a new life,” he laughs. “There’s so many bands that do rock’n’roll, and rock’n’roll’s great, but it’s a simple formula, and it’s been overdone. There’s so many local bands I know that are just rock’n’roll bands and it’s party music, they’re fun. But progressive I think is when you start to step outside the box. King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Rush, Queen; those bands, they took it to the extreme progressive. I like being somewhere in between rock’n’roll and just stepping outside the box a little bit to kinda let people ease into it. You throw too much of a curveball… There’s a fine line there between being so progressive that people don’t get it, you’re way ahead of your time.” Exploring new avenues and expanding their musical vocabulary is not specific to the parameters some may anticipate. Namely, the guitarist emphasises that dazzling instrumental proficiency doesn’t necessarily equate to such an outlook.
“To me, you can be progressive, but that doesn’t mean you have to play the fastest guitar licks ever, or the slowest, or as many notes in one, cram it into a 5/4 signature or whatever,” Kelliher adds. “I think our new record is proggy in a different way, with different vocals. Let’s let the vocals do some proggy shit.
“Dillinger Escape Plan, I love those guys, they’re great. But man, they lose me when I listen to the records. Some of the records I can digest, but some of it, it’s too much, too technical. I love technical stuff, I used to play in a really super technical band with Brann [Dailor, drums] back in the early ‘90s; we kind of covered those bases. There was no soul really there. I think Dillinger has soul, because they have a little more going on than Lethargy had.
“For Mastodon to be a little more progressive, like I said, it doesn’t have to be crazy time signatures and crazy guitar playing. It also just means moving forward and maturing, starting to come into your own as a songwriter, and trying new things. Doing something that we wouldn’t have done before; using the banjo, or keyboards, or writing something that’s kinda catchier than something we normally would write. ‘Cause for us that’s progressive; it’s not, ‘Oh, those guys are just trying to get a song on the radio’ ‘cause we’re not. We’re honestly trying to better ourselves musically.
“Progressive just means that you’re progressing; you’re doing something new that you haven’t done the last five records, which we slowly do, in a timely fashion. That way it’s not like we’re leaps and bounds from one record to the other. But if you do take like Remission and put it up against Crack The Skye, it definitely sounds like two different bands, but something about it, you can still hear that it’s Mastodon.
“So that’s the progressive part; ‘Hey, these guys actually progressed within their lifetime, and still managed to sound like themselves’. That’s kind of what I think is progress, when you can still sound like… When someone listens to a riff of a brand new song, like say, ‘High Road’. They’re like, ‘I can tell that’s Mastodon, but it’s like nothing they’ve ever played before’. It doesn’t sound like any other song. That’s progress.”
On their new opus, the ‘Don didn’t only aim to explore previously untapped musical territory, but extend such an ethos to the subject matter, which ventures into depths of inner turmoil not too many folks would want to encounter.
“It’s a very personal place,” Kelliher explains of the lyrics. “Once More ‘Round The Sun means one more year of our Earth that we live on going ‘round the sun. That year in the lives of the four of us, some crazy shit’s happened to each one of us individually… A lot of morbid stuff makes for good ideas and imagery, ‘cause it’s very shocking, it’s real. There’s a lot of loss, and a lot of just crazy shit that went on last year, and we’re kind of being cathartic by getting our demons out on paper and screaming ‘em every night. It’s like a release, a positive way to take a negative experience and make it a positive one. It’s always open to interpretation.”