Review Summary: An unbelievably great album that betrays very few signs of the band's relative newcomer status in the field of prog sludge Southern metal, if such a field exists.
Where to begin? Mastodon have shattered expectations for 21st century metal and emerged as one of the premier bands in the genre. With the exception of System of a Down, Opeth and Tool, almost no other band has offered such a unique take on the art and emerged with both critical and commercial success. This album was their last release before their move to a major label, but there is a far greater change from their debut album, Remission, to this than from Leviathan to their major label album, Blood Mountain. They are almost unrecognizable as being released by the same band. The vocals still contain screaming and growling, but for the first time (well, other than “Emerald”) we hear Brent Hinds’ more tuneful vocals hit the forefront. The interplay between he and their bassist/screamer Sanders on “Iron Tusk” is almost as unbelievable as his duel with guitarist Kelliher on “Aqua Dementia.” And as the vocalists roar ultimatums against the vicious ocean and its god Moby Dick, drummer Brann Dailor is slamming away at his kit with all the fury of a gale at sea. The effect reached here is truly stunning.
Continuing on a technical level, this album is an absolute masterpiece of production. Like a Tool album, every single note feels as if it was polished to its absolute best to reach the exact right effect. That’s not to say everything is as clean and plastic as a Linkin Park album, though. Just as Opeth inspires visions of haunted marshes and lost travelers with its production, just as Alice in Chains creates melancholy moods and despair, so does Mastodon summon up the very sound of the sea on this record. This, along with the vocals, is where the changes in Mastodon’s sound are more obvious. It makes the fantasy prog-rock on Blood Mountain seem almost like a regression in comparison.
In terms of playing their instruments, there’s little fault to be found here. The bass is (sigh) not especially audible, but it provides the dark underbelly necessary to anchor the almost bouncy nautical riffs (“I Am Ahab”) with real menace. The guitars slash and burn their way through some of the best riffs any band could hope to write. When they do more lead work, like on “Naked Burn,” they show no end of technical ability and ingenuity. The constant pull offs and fills keep the riffs from getting boring, although these flourishes don’t keep “Hearts Alive” from getting a little hurt by its excess. ”Blood and Thunder” is comparatively overcrowded with various pick slides, squeals, pull offs and other guitar-y sorts of noises. Brann Dailor should be nominated for some sort of award. He steps up his game from Remission and delivers a momentous performance. There is never a dull moment as his drums serve less as a rhythmic foundation than as a propelling force, thrusting the guitars into their monolithic attack. The vocals have already been mentioned, but they too are great. Hinds delivers an excellent reflective vocal on “Hearts Alive,” and his resemblance to Ozzy is evident on “Naked Burn.” Sanders does a good job, no longer relying on unintelligible mic-crushing like on “Remission.” The guest spots are good, but they are too obvious and not well integrated into the music like the ones on “Blood Mountain.” In general, the technical aspects of this record are excellent, with only a few flaws to bog them down.
An interesting observation to make about the record is its flow. The songs follow naturally from each other, keeping up the natural momentum. It almost feels like the sea itself, constantly in motion, turbulent yet understandable. The drum flourishes that connect “Island” and “Iron Tusk,” and the evocative dissolve from “Aqua Dementia” to “Hearts Alive” keep up a strong feeling of natural rhythm to the album that most alleged concept albums lack.
That brings us to the songwriting, which is still good but not quite as consistent. Roughly every other song is truly excellent; the even-numbered songs are somewhat filler-ish or at least suffering from a lack of musical ideas. We hear the same progression in so many riffs, a flat note repeated several times and then the sharp note directly above it played, that by the time it appears in its least adorned form in “Hearts Alive” we start to get bored. There are luckily very few identifiable verses or choruses, and the closest we come to a typical song structure is the opening track and maybe “Iron Tusk.” Also, there are very few vocal melodies for Hinds to wrap his interesting voice around; most of the time, he’s just shouting or bellowing like the guy from Baroness. As the CD goes on, he gets more actual notes to sing (“Naked Burn,” “Seabeast”) but we don’t get the excellent, mysterious vocal work that filled Blood Mountain to the brim. The only other serious problem with the song writing is a tendency to repeat certain riffs as a way of lending power to a song rather than coming up with something new and excellent. The twist on “Iron Tusk’s” bridge riff is a fantastic way to close the song, for example, and “Seabeast” is a precursor to “Hunters of the Sky” with its serrated coda riff, but “Megalodon” and “I Am Ahab” end much too similarly to the way they begin.
The only other big problem with the CD is “Hearts Alive.” Mastodon has the power to conjure up epic visions in short 4-minute songs, so I was skeptical about what merit a 13-minute song length could offer. As far as I can tell it only serves to bolster the CD’s rather short running time. The first two minutes of the song drift poignantly through a clean guitar arrangement, but it changes abruptly into a more nautical riff. If these two minutes had been used to lead slowly up to the heaviness, or even if three or four minutes had been used, the song might have deserved its running time. Instead it seems to repeat sections just as a method of making things take more time. A better use of transitions would have made this song, and quite a few other parts of Leviathan, much better.
The mere fact that I give so much attention to these smaller flaws reveals how monumental an accomplishment Leviathan really is. After the critical acclaim of Remission, there was no real need to change their sound so much, but change it did, and with it came all sorts of great new things. The stepping-stone to their masterpiece Blood Mountain, this summons the fearsome spirit of Melville’s greatest creation right out of the water. From the very first roar of “I think that someone is trying to kill me” right to the last heartfelt moment of “Joseph Merrick,” this CD shoulders aside genres and conventions alike to stand tall as an example of great originality and listenability in the new millennium of metal.