Every Mastodon Album Ranked From Worst To Best
Eighteen years since they roared out from the muggy depths of the Atlantan underground and on to worldwide acclaim, few acts can match Mastodon.
Four distinct individuals – icons on stage, relative enigmas off it – bound together by electric chemistry, bulldozer drive and a shared vision of how they want to honour heavy music’s past while shaping its future. They’re the closest post-Millennial metal has come – in terms of bone-shattering force, breathtaking invention and consistent quality – to providing a worthy heir to the genre’s fading greats.
In that regard, each chapter in their ever-expanding repertoire is a victory deserving of celebration. As they prepare to trample back onto UK stages this week, however, we thought we’d chart the shifting gradients of their inexorable rise. Indeed, every stomping battle-cry, every thrilling swerve and every bemusing spiral into widdly weirdness is worthy of your undivided attention – just some more so than others…
7. Once More ‘Round The Sun (2014)
A caveat: it’s perhaps easier to rationalise Once More ‘Round The Sun as Mastodon’s ‘least-best’ album rather than their ‘worst’. Peppered with the sparkling quality of tracks like High Road (writhingly muscular), Chimes At Midnight (kaleidoscopically consummate) and Asleep In The Deep (a masterclass in atmospheric psychedelia), there’s no shortage of quality. And that’s before we even mention cast-iron banger The Motherload. It marked an intriguing approach towards the mainstream: melody and accessibility coming to the fore in a continuation of strategy first explored on The Hunter. Therein lay a problem, however. That Reload-style second bite seemed to come at the cost of the conceptual reinvention and the blank-slate creativity on which they truly thrive. It also felt like the reservoir of riffs was still at a low-ebb following the previous record’s tidal burst. Regardless, OMRTS remains a pendulous, hypnotic record; one that unfussily draws the listener into its strange, colourful depths.
6. Crack The Skye (2009)
Looking back, it’s difficult to explain how much of a departure Crack The Skye felt like on release. Putting aside the heft and blunt force of influences like Metallica and Slayer in favour of the proggy experimentalism of bands as varied as King Krimson and Opeth, not to mention swapping Leviathan/Blood Mountain producer Matt Bayles in favour of Bruce Springsteen/Pearl Jam favourite Brendan O’Brien, its labyrinthine weirdness was as confounding as it was exhilarating. Structured around the barely-comprehensible concept of a paraplegic boy whose soul becomes detached while astral projecting and is then transplanted into the body of mad monk Rasputin in Tsarist Russia, the resultant record is a wild, unruly listen. The willingness to risk reinvention on early tracks Oblivion and Divinations, and the sheer unbridled ambition of ten-minute, three-part masterwork The Czar and luxuriant, 13-minute closer The Last Baron more than compensates for any uncontrolled focus.
5. Remission (2002)
The titanic debut. Opening with a tyrannosaur roar half-inched from Jurassic Park, the monstrous, game-changing ambition on show on Remission is impossible to deny. New York natives, guitarist Bill Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor had lent their heft to tech-death outfit Lethargy and grindcore institution Today Is The Day, but it was a leap-of-faith relocation to Atlanta, GA and connection with six-string wizard/demon Brent Hinds and cornerstone bassist Troy Sanders – coming off the breakup of their earlier outfit Four Hour Fogger – that saw them spark dark magic. Fans of Thin Lizzy, Melvins and a host of strange avant-garde influence, the quartet drilled their explosive enthusiasm and volatile artistic alchemy into furious cuts like March Of The Fire Ants (still one of modern metal’s finest), Where Strides The Behemoth and Workhorse. Thinking metalheads were understandably quick to sit up and take notice. A no-holds-barred pressure release before their later masterpieces, Remission is, at times, admittedly light on finesse – but all the harder hitting for it.
4. Emperor Of Sand (2017)
There’s an argument that Mastodon’s seventh – and latest – album is their least pioneering. Polishing down their brute angularity and reining in their wilder progressive tendencies in an apparent bid for mainstream approval felt like an outright betrayal for some entrenched die-hards. Hell, in Sultan’s Curse it even managed the elitist ‘ignominy’ of receiving the GRAMMY for Best Metal Performance. That view of tracks as irresistible as Precious Stones and Roots Remain is blindly two-dimensional, however. These are the sounds of Mastodon wielding the full spectrum of their ability with truly defined vision: exercising control over their elemental talents without taming them. Yes, Steambreather and the brilliantly Brann Dailor-led Show Yourself feature singalong choruses, but they’re still chock full of leftfield invention and esoteric embellishment. Even more brilliantly, the band maintain that judicious focus as they cut loose in the second half. The strange heaviosity of Andromeda and shapeshifting finale Jaguar God would have been more loosely handled by their younger selves. Now they drive home with pinpoint accuracy.
3. Blood Mountain (2006)
Gallingly, Mastodon’s third album is often heavily underrated. Yes, for many it was hurt by comparison to the unbridled energy of Remission and the measured perfection of Leviathan, but as a bridge between those albums’ crushing force and the more cosmic tendencies of Crack The Skye it captures a perfect balance: between fiery intent and airy experimentation, between what Mastodon were and what they would become. By comparison, it’s the closest the Atlantans have come to the concussive, transitory fascination of …And Justice For All. Fittingly built around the concept of a traveller waylaid during their ascent up some uncharted mountain, there are outlandish missteps (Bladecatcher) and moments of confused frenzy (the borderline-unplayable Capillarian Crest) but even these are crafted perfectly into the wilfully unwieldy whole. Cameos from QOTSA’s Josh Homme, ATDI’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Neurosis’ Scott Kelly swirl in. Masterful highlights like Colony Of Birchmen (tellingly, a nod to Genesis’ Colony Of Slippermen) keep the narrative and aesthetic through-line anchored, but its the virtuoso, variably percussive opening salvo of The Wold Is Loose, Crystal Skull and Sleeping Giant that’ll echo in eternity.
2. The Hunter (2011)
The Hunter doesn’t get bogged down in convoluted concepts. It’s not worried about consistent motifs. It certainly doesn’t trip off on any epic journeys down musical wormholes; hell, the longest track is a mere five-and-a-half minutes. What The Hunter does is capture Mastodon at their swaggeringly confident best. Although the title is a reference to the death of wildman guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds’ brother, who suffered a heart attack on a hunting trip, the overarching album is more interested in telling stories about Swamp Thing (Creature Lives) and zero-gravity sex (Stargasm), and indulging the outright absurdity of titles like Octopus Has No Friends and Bedazzled Fingernails. The band themselves described the album as a sort-of mixtape of their multiple personalities. Shuffling from the trippy darkness of Black Tongue via funkily muscular highlight Curl Of The Burl to the hauntingly folky title-track and jazzy, distended closer The Sparrow, it’s never been clearer that – in metal terms – they’re jacks of all trades and masters of every one. A modern classic, it’s criminal that this didn’t catapult Mastodon instantly into arenas. But that promise will surely soon be fulfilled.
1. Leviathan (2004)
What more can be said about Leviathan? The now-infamous concept album based on Herman Melville’s classic tale of the white whale Moby-Dick wasn’t just Mastodon’s breakthrough, it was instantly recognisable as one of the best albums in metal history. A work of aggressive perfection right from the opening riff of Blood And Thunder, it’s a record full of iconic moments. The stormbeaten lurch of I Am Ahab remains saltily evocative. Seabeast’s surging mystery hints tantalisingly at the opening out of their sound to come. Iron Tusk pivots at the midpoint, twisting us back into the churning tempest. Aqua Dementia seethes with all the anguish and desperation of insanity. Hearts Alive is a shamelessly unshackled epic. Joseph Merrick has the dreamy daring to fade out with a jaunty, bluesy kiss goodbye. More than those individual moments, however, Leviathan hangs together with all the powerful coherence of the narrative concept. Mastodon have since and will again work on broader canvasses, but it’ll be astonishing if they ever manage to conjure a more compelling, unforgettably complete picture than this.
Mastodon EPs also worthy of your time: Call Of The Mastodon (2006) and Cold Dark Place (2017)
Words: Sam Law