If not for High on Fire, Mastodon might never have existed. The flame-bonging Oakland trio swung through Atlanta in 1999, playing what was presumably an eardrum-destroying gig in the basement of local musician Brent Hinds. At the show, Hinds and his friend, bassist Troy Sanders, met drummer Brann Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher, who had both recently arrived from Rochester, N.Y. The four were knit together by a love of the Melvins and Bay Area metal experimentalists Neurosis, and a decade later, they are a metal band of towering stature.
Mastodon's Crack the Skye (Warner Bros./Reprise, 2009) is an appropriately mammoth undertaking, the final chapter in a four-album arc that ties each disc to an Aristotelian element. With fire (Remission, Relapse, 2002), water (Leviathan, Relapse, 2004), and earth (Blood Mountain, Warner Bros./Reprise, 2006) accounted for, Crack the Skye centers around ether, which (in the band's typical fashion) serves as a jumping-off point for the story of a quadriplegic astral traveler who zooms through space and time only to arrive in tsarist Russia in time to warn Rasputin of his impending assassination.
Spanning only seven tracks but clocking in at roughly 50 minutes, the album is Mastodon's most cohesive to date, its songs flowing into each other like the movements of a heavily distorted prog-rock symphony. With this in mind, the band will play the album in its entirety during its April 19 date at the Great American Music Hall, augmenting the performance with visual spectacle courtesy of an LED screen and Neurosis member Josh Graham.
Mastodon, "Iron Tusk"
Crack the Skye's title has a deeper meaning for drummer Dailor, whose contributions to the record are a tribute to his sister, Skye, who committed suicide at age 14. This multivalent phrase is an illuminating example of the band's densely layered art, which combines the diverse songwriting of its members with a wealth of thematic and musical allusion.
It was Dailor who showed up in London after an exhausting plane trip clutching a copy of Moby Dick. Though the group had toyed with high- and pop-cultural references in the past, the drummer's suggestion that their next album be centered around Herman Melville's 1851 classic took a while to sink in. When I interviewed Kelliher recently by phone, he explained how it caught on: "We kind of saw ourselves in the same boat, literally, leaving our families and friends behind and jumping into this quest ... going out in the world trying to make it, searching for our own white whale."
The album that resulted, Leviathan, was Mastodon's defining work, mixing easy-to-grasp themes of harpooning and high-seas adventure with oceans of metaphorical extrapolation. The band has mined other allusive veins, modeling riffs from Blood Mountain's "Crystal Skull" off tribal drum patterns in Peter Jackson's 2005 take on King Kong and shooting a video for the Crack the Skye single "Divinations" that's an uproarious tribute to John Carpenter's 1982 version of The Thing.
Between the nods to other works, the narrative lyrical themes, and the complex, progressive songwriting, Mastodon's music can be overwhelming. Kelliher cops to some early writing conflicts with guitarist Hinds that involved a refrain of "No, man, it doesn't go like that, it goes like this" in response to his opposite number's deconstructive playing style.