Review Summary: Flashes of genius undercut with terrible vocals.
Mastodon are one of those bands which I relentlessly but futilely try to turn people onto. I fell in love with them some three years ago, during a live performance for the Leviathan
tour, and since that day it has been my quest to get them some more fans. However, even the most devoted among my metalhead friends show little to no interest in the Georgian four-piece, claiming that they “don’t get” the band. My subsequent explanation about how “not getting it” is the whole point
of Mastodon’s music usually falls on deaf ears, and it is with a sigh of resignation that I go back to listening to Blood Mountain
out there “gets” Mastodon. The band have garnered an ever-growing fanbase and even scored a Grammy nomination – something unthought-of a few years ago, especially for such a dissonant, chaotic band.
Incidentally, “dissonant” and “chaotic” are two adjectives that make much more sense applied to the band’s earlier efforts than to their latter. Albums such as Blood Mountain
or, to a lesser extent, Leviathan
, are veritable smorgasbords of intelligent style-fusing, but considerably tone-down the aggression and angular riffs in favor of melodies and sung choruses. But early efforts from the band’s underground period were much more about raw noise and death metal influences than about stoner overtones and catchy hooks.
This brings us to today’s review, and let me assure you, they don’t get much more underground than this. This is Mastodon’s very first
demo, released in 2000. Back then, the group was a five-piece, and the frontman was a guy called Eric Saner, who would go on to represent Mastodon’s only formation change to date. And you know what? Good riddance. They’re better off this way.
Seriously, quoting the Angry Video Game Nerd: what were they thinking
!?!?! This guy can’t sing! He has a horrible “growly” register, interspersed with some grindish “vacuum-cleaner” grunts, and totally devoid of quality. For those of us who have been spoiled by Troy Sander’s pleasant singing voice on Blood Mountain
, listening to Saner will be the aural equivalent of ear-rape with a sharp blade. Seriously, it’s that bad. As the record moves along, we become more accustomed with his voice, but it still represents a relief whenever someone’s clean vocals come in to back his growls (as in We Built This Come Death
or Deep Sea Creature
. Not to mention that his horrible excretions constantly threaten to drag down the songs. Sometimes they succeed (Shadows That Move
), and on other occasions, only the brilliance of the backing band prevents it from happening.
Speaking of the backing band, it consists of the same four guys we all know, and they’re as brilliant as ever. Even at this early point, Brann Dailor’s powerhouse drumming is already – and will probably always be – the musical highlight of the band, but Bill Kelliher’s and Brent Hind’s angular, dissonant riffs also help give this band the unique ambiance they are known for today. As for Sander’s bass, it’s hardly ever audible, and sadly establishes itself, even as early as this, as the weakest link in Mastodon’s music.
But what of the songs? Well, as noted, they didn’t fit the “anything goes” mold of later-day Mastodon. Before they were a stoner/noise/sludge/death/post/whatever band, the band followed a much simpler pattern, basically mixing really harsh death metal with contemplative post-rock passages a la Neurosis. Many of these atmospheres are created by the guitar harmonies of Hinds and Kelliher, while Dailor’s frantic, counter-tempo drumming and Saner’s regurgitations take care of the death metal aspect.
In fact, this album is easily divisable into two separate halves. The first one – and the least interesting one – is comprised of three more brutal tracks, which meld together into a mass of chaotic riffing and god-awful snarls. In fact, the only way I could tell where one track ended and the other began was because my mp3 player has an ever-so-slight volume dip whenever the track changes. Without that, I’d be left as clueless as that first time I listened to It’s Alive!
and thought: “wow, that is a long
opening track!” It doesn’t help that the second track is exactly the same as the first, either. Welcoming War
segues directly from Shadows That Move
and uses what sounds like the exact same riff. Coupled with the lack of melody and the DEAR GOD MAKE IT STOP vocals, this easily takes the prize for the only weak moment on this demo.
On this portion of the album, only We Thank You For This
will grab your attention, due to its short running time of 01:40 and the thrash beat towards the end. But, again, you will only know that if you have some sort of indication that the track has changed; otherwise, you won’t even notice it.
The second, and much better, half starts with We Build This Come Death
and carries on for six tracks. This is where the band starts to develop their songwriting genius, as these songs often throw fragments of beauty into the tidal wave of chaos that is the group’s music. The first three songs already hinted at this fact (the Nirvanesque guitar doodling amongs the heaviness in Shadows That Move
serving as evidence) , but here it comes out in full force. Songs like Call Of The Mastodon
, Hail to Fire
or Battle At Sea
combine acoustic intros with sharp riffs, growled vocals, traditional metal solos, harmonies and whatever else the group sees fit to include. And even though each songs follows a very similar pattern (with quiet intros followed by dissonant riffs), each also manages to distinguish itself from the others – a fact that speaks volumes about Mastodon’s capacities as songwriters.
It is also here that we come across our first clear standout. Slickleg
is a mammoth – pun intended – of a track that goes everywhere, from an acoustic intro to a traditional metal riff, blastbeats, post-rock ambiances and back again, all in the space of four short minutes. It’s by far the best song on the album, and an indication of what Mastodon could really do. As for other standouts, while none are as clear as Slickleg, Call of the Mastodon
is probably the other most immediate one. Once again, this is a track that works very well, even busting out a classic metal solo out of nowhere to surprise the listener. Tracks such as We Built This Come Death
and Deep Sea Creature
fall just short of being standouts, but constitute strong tracks in their own right.
As for low points, Welcoming War
stands alone, although Hail To Fire
tends to slip by unnoticed, a fact demonstrated by my constant efforts to remember what the ninth song in the lineup is. However, being sandwiched in between two of the strongest tracks on the album doesn’t help the track any, either.
Fortunately, there is more good than bad in this Mastodon effort.Despite the atrocious vocals, which fatally influence the rating, the EP shows flashes of what Mastodon were capable of. Sure, newcomers and less attentive listeners may justifiably think Mastodon are essentially re-doing the same two songs - "brutal song" and "song with doodly guitar harmonies" - over and over again. But people like that aren't who Mastodon's music is aimed it. Mastodon's music is aimed at cerebral listeners, who take the music in, feeling it and breathing it. And those will understand that, while there was still a lot of growth to undergo, the songs certainly didn’t deserve to be consigned to oblivion. And they weren’t.
In fact, before researching I was sure some of the songs had later been re-recorded. Certainly Battle At Sea
, and possibly a couple of the others. Upon consulting the Internet, I found out all
of them had been re-recorded and re-released at some point. Five made up the Lifesblood
EP, destined to present the new, Saner-less Mastodon formation. Another three went to a rare 7”, and in 2006, all of them were reunited with long-lost sibling Call Of The Mastodon
for the B-side compilation of the same name. Now performed by someone who could actually sing, these songs were thus given a chance to show their full potential - and didn’t disappoint.
Before we wrap up, a final observation about the artwork. It’s a self-titled demo by a band called Mastodon, and the cover features…a mastodon! Original, eh?
Call Of The Mastodon