Mastodon of a New Era 

Atlanta's metal masters embrace chaos with The Hunter

Atlanta metal band Mastodon has a reputation as big as its namesake. The band's singer, Brent Hinds, once threatened to kill a Rolling Stone reporter during an interview.

He later said he was joking, laying his head in the reporter's lap and asking him to stroke his brow. But the band's drummer, Brann Dailor, remembers that moment well.

"It didn't seem like he was joking," Dailor said.

Then there was the time Hinds spent three days in a coma after a bar fight.

"We're not all like that--just this wild unhinged nightmare rolling down the street," said Dailor. "We play our rock shows and we have a good time, and once in while, things go a little too far."

Dailor said, for the most part, Hinds and the other members of the band are pretty chill. But their "moments" are more widely publicized than the average giant-tusked mammal's.

"[Hinds has] got a black belt in partying," said Dailor.

But big as its reputation for trouble may be, the band's reputation for musical chops looms far larger. The BBC called it "the most ambitious, most fearless, most fun heavy metal band to have breached the mainstream since the genre oozed its way out of the Midlands in the 1970s."

The same reporter Hinds threatened to kill later wrote: "Mastodon are the greatest metal band of their generation--no one else even comes close."

The band has recorded complex concept albums addressing the elements fire, water, earth and "aether" with lyrics that cover spiritual experiences on mountaintops, Stephen Hawking's theories on wormholes, the art of Tsarist Russia and the suicide of Dailor's sister, Skye. The 2004 album Leviathan was about Moby Dick. All of it. And none of them rate less than an 8.0 on Pitchfork.

And yet, for its freshly released album, The Hunter, Mastodon chose to toss much of that away in favor of an a la carte approach.

"Usually, we're in the practice space for months and months trying to figure out mathematical equations to put into songs," Dailor said. "This time, we wanted to not care about those kinds of things."

Dailor said a major factor in that decision was that the band was facing some stressful times as they sat down to write The Hunter. Hinds' brother had recently died, as had a close friend of the band.

"We wanted to do something more loose, less stressful," said Dailor. "Putting together a concept album isn't that easy to pull off. And at the end of the day, you don't even know how many people care about it besides us. They're like, 'What is this about? Rasputin?' So we decided to alleviate ourselves of that kind of stress."

The result is 52 minutes of thunderous riffs and vocals that slip back and forth from muscular growls to elegies in three-party harmony. It's more mournful and less expansively psychedelic than some of the band's earlier epics, with none of the tracks even breaking the six-minute mark.

But it's every bit as heavy as fans expect of the band, even if it's a different kind of heavy. Some of the guitar work evokes the sludgy moan typical of grunge riffs of the early '90s more than it does the percussive blasts of precisely tuned distortion that comprise modern metal. And it makes sense. Much of the album's material came from songs and riffs written while touring with Alice in Chains.

But it wasn't just the concept concept they abandoned for The Hunter. Mastodon wanted to switch up everything except the members of the band. They hired Mike Elizondo, best known for his work with Dr. Dre, to produce the album, and wood carver A.J. Fosik to do the album cover instead of Paul Romano, whose complex and unsettling art adorned all of the band's previous records.

"We had an opportunity to do something new and we took it," said Dailor. "That's what an album is, an invitation to reinvent yourself, if you have the balls. And that's what we did without completely abandoning who we are."

And this is the core of what makes Mastodon so great: The band's comfort zone is outside its comfort zone. When BW spoke to Dailor by phone, the band had just returned from the United Kingdom, where it appeared on a televised bill with indie darlings Feist and Bon Iver.

"It's cool to be asked to do something like that," said Dailor.

The band has also done voice work and provided music to be "dramatized" for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, which came about because of fans who work at the Atlanta-based network. Notable moments include an epic battle between puppets and UFOs to Mastodon's song "Deathbound," and the band's appearance as a gang of tough-looking animated movie theater snacks that sing a song about the importance of not talking during the movie to begin the film version of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

"I did this thing where I dressed up like a giant drummer puppet that looked like Marky Ramone," said Dailor. "I want that to be my next job."

But for now, Dailor and company are on the road to promote The Hunter. They'll be in Boise for a show at the Knitting Factory on Monday, Nov. 7, and a pre-show album signing at Record Exchange at 4:30 p.m. As for the next album, other than it being epically heavy, what they'll do is anybody's guess.

"We don't want to be a band that's tied to any one thing," said Dailor. "We want to keep people guessing about what it's going to look like and what it's going to sound like."

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