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.

Blunt - - Contents - By Brendan Crabb. Pho­tos by Kane Hib­berd.

Set riffs to sun in 3... 2... 1... Blast off!

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.”

Bill kel­li­her

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.”

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