Review Summary: Pure Riff
To this day, "Remission" confuses me quite a bit. It sticks out like a sore thumb in Mastodon's discography, and it's so different from the others that it really seems like a different band at points. It's quite astonishing to witness the evolution that this band went through from their debut to their stellar (yet slightly overrated in my honest opinion) sophomore effort "Leviathan", a much more diverse and experimental album, with the experimentation getting even more prevalent with each album since, cresting with "The Hunter" in which no particular style is stuck with for more than 2 songs in a row. But that's an entirely different story. We're here to talk about "Remission", Mastodon's first opus.
The musicianship is solid yet very hyperactive, especially with Brann Dailor's insane drumming. He is the only drummer I can think of who can get away with constant and completely random fills and what's even stranger is that he is a metal drummer who relies more on his lightning-quick hands than fast feet and double kick, only using it during certain sections (even then, the double bass doesn't ever get extremely fast). He especially shines on the intro to "March of the Fire Ants" with his precise snare rolls and metric tomfoolery. Brent Hinds and Troy Sanders take over lead vocal duties as usual, although unlike later albums it can be quite difficult to tell the two apart on this one, as their performance mostly consists of distorted screaming. Brent's voice also doesn't seem to have as much of that southern drawl you have come to love (or hate) from him. There is only one instance of (semi)clean vocals, which are limited to a low crooning/growling during "Trainwreck". The guitar work is also a sight to behold, with Brent and Bill spouting off harmonized riffs in strange rhythms at every turn with one of the dirtiest and fizziest yet still punchy and sharp guitar tones I've ever heard.
The songwriting here is really unfocused, but it actually kind of works in some songs, a prime example being the face-melting opener "Crusher Destroyer". It randomly throws riffs around without caring where in the song they land and disjointedly changes tempos and time signatures so fast that you might get some sort of auditory whiplash from its chaotic frenzy. But the key to the song's success is that it just barely breaks the two minute mark. Unfortunately, when the songs do get longer, the songwriting can sometimes just fall apart, the band being content to just throw endless amounts of riffs that while being very good don't give you much time to appreciate them, as they're competing for space with the other riffs jammed into the songs. It is a common trap that young metal bands often fall into, trying to compete with well established bands by out-progging them and just loading songs with too much for their own good. Tracks like "Trampled Under Hoof" and "Mother Puncher" (despite the latter having an extremely kickass opening) just kind of jam for a while and then end without really doing much in the way of structuring the excellent riffs into something interesting. I find this odd, considering that the softer, quieter sections are impeccably well composed compared to the riff factory mentality of the rest of the album.
Speaking of, I really believe that the soft parts of the album are really the best moments "Remission" has to offer. Gems such as the intros to both"Ol'e Nessie" and "Trilobite" are the most memorable passages of their respective songs, while instrumental closer "Elephant Man" is just straight up beautiful in my opinion, leaking an aura of loneliness and solitude that can be quite emotionally crushing if the mood is right, and that leads me to my next point.
There's just a vibe that this record has (for both the heavy and the soft sections) that I can't quite put my finger on, but it really is unique as it's the one of only 3 albums I can think of that nails this particular atmosphere, with the two others being Opeth's "Morningrise" and Tools 's "Ænima". I know that's rather vague but bear with me, for I believe that this weird atmosphere is what really gives the whole opus an unforgettable quality. If I really had to put into words how this album feels, I think the best way to describe it is that it sounds like its being played at the bottom of the ocean in a dark trench where the sunlight has never been seen. Despite how loud and chaotic it is, it's also very serene at the same time. The lyrics are often limited to sparse, vague phrases and much of the time are quite unintelligible (the most you're likely to get out of the lyrics if you're not reading the booklet is usually something to the extent of "RAH! RAH! RAFABAFLAH!"). They also seem to follow the exact cadence of the riffs a lot of the time, almost making them function as more of an atmospheric effect than traditional vocals, especially during songs like "Trilobite". However, this does lead to sort of a conundrum, in that these are the only two styles you will hear from this album, almost as if the band are a bit scared of just letting loose with some whacky ideas and just playing with out-there musical and lyrical ideas, a filter that was slowly but surely whittled down through the band's consecutive releases and thankfully was completely gone by the time "Crack the Skye" was conceived, with its slew of exotic sounds and atmospheres.
I think a big part of that unique vibe and atmosphere I mentioned earlier is in the production. Handled mostly by Matt Bayles, this is a great example of a "raw" production done right. So many bands strive for a raw sound, yet completely miss the point by intentionally making the record sound crappier *coughblackmetalcough*, when often the best thing to do is to just resist sculpting the sound with EQ and compression and overloading the stereo image with artificial ambience in favor of letting it breath on its own. This record's sound is harsh and unpolished, but everything is still clear and hard hitting. This is what I think Metallica were trying to do with St. Anger's production but they ultimately went about it wrong. The only production complaint I have is with Troy's bass. While you can hear it in the mix, what you actually can hear most of the time is just a really fizzy white noise from the extreme distortion that floats above everything else in the mix, and when it does play on its own in a few moments, such as in "Where Strides the Behemoth", it sounds terrible, with almost no definition of the notes being played. It also sounds horribly out of place in the oh-so-sweet quiet parts and doesn't fit the smooth textures being presented. I'm not exaggerating at all when I say it sounds like an elephant with GI distress. It does provide some good low end so I guess it's at least functional.
In terms of pure songwriting, this album is probably Mastodon's weakest overall record, although when its good its some of their best moments. Unfortunately there's not enough of those cathartic blasts of awesome that they have refined in their more recent work. It does however stand out for its unique vibe and sheer difference from Mastodon's other work. If the songwriting were tighter and powerful moments more abundant, this album would probably get a 4 or 4.5 from me, but how it is I can really only give it a 3.5. I think that not many people will think about this record like I do, so give a listen if you haven't and see if you prefer this style of Mastodon or the more classic rock tinged music of "Crack the Skye" or "The Hunter". I myself prefer the latter, but that's just me.