Mastodon: Fire Walk with Me
Within a year of releasing their seventh LP Emperor of Sand in 2017, the four prog-metal mavens of Mastodon found themselves on an emotional rollercoaster—until a world on pause gave them an unexpected chance to regroup and reflect.
Deep within the confines of Ember City, the warehouse complex that Mastodon bought a few years ago and converted into their rehearsal space and state-of-the-art recording studio, drummer and co-lead vocalist Brann Dailor is getting back into the groove. He and his bandmates—bassist Troy Sanders and guitarists Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds—have been tracking new material with longtime recording engineer Tom Tapley, and the molten riffs just keep coming. Now that lockdown restrictions have eased, for the time being, in their home base of Atlanta, they’re bursting with new ideas and already have about 25 new songs.
“We were pretty far along by mid-March,” Dailor confides, pinpointing the day when everything went haywire for anyone who was on the road or traveling overseas. Quite a few of his friends had been touring or, like Mastodon, already gearing up for summer festivals when the pandemic hit. “We were among the fortunate ones. We were on our break—not a real break, by any means, but we were in the middle of the year at home that we normally use to write and get ready to record another album. That’s the cycle we’ve been in for 20 years. So when we hit pause like everyone else, we were sitting on all this music. I listened to it a bunch during the pause, and the music was good. But we didn’t go down to the studio. We just stayed home.”
After touring the world in support of their barn-burning Emperor of Sand for nearly two-and-ahalf years, the unforeseen break turned out to be exactly what the band needed. They’d won their first Grammy for the psych-metal epic “Sultan’s Curse” in early 2018—a fitting reward for years of commitment and hard work, but a moment the band could only celebrate for a few months before they learned the terrible news that their close friend and longtime manager Nick John had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When he passed away that September, it was a crushing blow.
John was an avowed Led Zeppelin fan, so when his widow Colleen asked the band to play at his funeral, the song choice was obvious. “I can’t think of anything more scary than doing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ because I knew that I’d be singing it,” Dailor recalls. “But, of course, we were like, ‘Yes, we’ll do it.’ And then, we went to record it. We thought to ourselves, ‘Why would you ever cover ‘Stairway to Heaven?’ But we did it for Nick. I can just hear Nick losing his mind on the phone if I ever told him, ‘Dude, we’re gonna cover ‘Stairway to Heaven!’’”
Mastodon released “Stairway to Nick John” as a limited-edition Record Store Day single in April 2019. A few months earlier, the band inaugurated Tapley’s new studio space, West End Sound, tracking an entirely different song that they planned to release ahead of a European tour with Scott Kelly, stalwart frontman for Neurosis, on select dates. “Scott was in town rehearsing with us,” says Sanders, “And we came down and tracked the song with him and then realized, ‘Hey, this is the first song we’ve recorded at this spot, and it’s got great potential.’ We were hoping to play it on tour, but we never did. And we were hoping to release it sooner than we did but, it turns out, the song is a year and a half old now. But it’s absolutely about Nick. He was our guiding light, if you will. And when that torch fell, we felt we had to do this for him.”
Released in August, “Fallen Torches” almost perfectly encapsulates Mastodon’s ability to deliver a sense of vulnerability in a hard-driving genre that’s not always recognized for its emotional range. It’s also a bit of a throwback to the band’s earlier, angrier sound—as Sanders notes, friends have told him that the song recalls the ferocity of their stripped-raw 2002 debut, Remission—and yet it still glistens with the well-traveled polish of four badass players who have dedicated themselves to crafting a style of metal that’s as rich with color and complexity as it is unpredictable and wild.
It’s only fitting that the song leads off Medium Rarities—a smoldering slab of B-sides, covers, instrumentals and live cuts that span the band’s nearly 20-year history. Taken as a whole, the set demonstrates Mastodon’s sheer agility as a musical unit, from the punk-rock inflection of “Atlanta,” a delectable romp with Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes, to the haunting power of “A Commotion,” an unlikely Feist cover that was one half of a 2012 split “Feistodon” single. (Feist reciprocated by covering Mastodon’s “Black Tongue” as the other half of the single.) Instrumentals like the slow-building epic “Jaguar God,” from Emperor of Sand, place the band’s face-melting musicianship front and center, while live cuts such as “Circle of Cysquatch”—a blistering catalog staple from 2006’s Blood Mountain, culled here from the Unholy Alliance tour with Slayer—paint a vivid picture of what everyone is missing while live music remains on indefinite hiatus until 2021 at the earliest.
Not that the individual members of Mastodon haven’t been busy in this COVID-conscious environment. Besides laying down tracks for the upcoming album, they also contributed the raucous “Rufus Lives” to the latest installment in the Bill & Ted film series, Bill & Ted Face the Music. In July, Kelliher carved out time to collaborate remotely with Les Claypool, Coheed and Cambria’s Claudio Sanchez, Mutoid Man’s Steve Brodsky, Gwarsenio Hall’s Jordan Olds and Tool’s Danny Carey on a cover of Rush’s classic “Anthem,” released on video just in time for Geddy Lee’s birthday. (Primus still plans to mount a tribute tour celebrating Rush’s prog lodestone A Farewell to Kings in 2021.) Meanwhile, Hinds teamed up with Marcus King for his “Four of A Kind” livestream series in Nashville; the highlights included a rendition of ZZ Top’s Southern-fried “Thunderbird” and a true-to-the-darkness take on Black Sabbath’s “Electric Funeral.” (Since then, Hinds has hinted online at new sessions with his West End Motel side project.)
Staying limber has been especially important to Dailor, although he too found benefits in disconnecting from the wear and tear of anchoring one of the hardest-working bands in hard rock. “This was the first break that I’ve taken from Mastodon in 20 years, for real,” he says. “Almost morning, noon and night, I think about Mastodon, and I think about what we’re gonna do next. I’m always practicing for the next tour and I’m thinking about T-shirt designs or whatever. It’s just all-consuming, all the time. And when we hit pause, I actually paused. I just didn’t think about it, or I tried not to at least. Here and there, I listened to some of the demos, but it was a good opportunity for me to put everything on hold. I even took time off from playing the drums, and I hadn’t really done that before. I was like, ‘What’s it feel like to not play the drums for a couple of weeks?’ And when I went back and sat down, I felt more creative. I wasn’t rutting myself. I was hoping for some perspective, and I think it worked. It helped me personally, and I think it helped the new music.”
For now, Medium Rarities not only fills a void, but also offers a roadmap of the band’s desire to constantly push and expand the limits of their collective talent. Besides the cover of Feist’s “A Commotion,” there’s the beautiful prog-psych rendition of The Flaming Lips’ “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” which immediately recalls the creative seam the band explored on 2009’s Crack the Skye, the breakthrough concept album that Dailor dedicated to the memory of his departed sister. And then there’s the hypnotic, tribal-sounding “White Walker,” which the group recorded for the second volume of the Catch the Throne mixtape in tandem with HBO’s Game of Thrones.
“We were asked by our friend Daniel Weiss, the show’s director, [writer and producer], to put something together,” Sanders says. “I remember Brann spearheaded that. He started writing some lyrics because all four of us, like the rest of the world, were super into the show, and we just didn’t want to let the opportunity pass by. We kind of had to get in, knock it out and get outta there, but we used that as fuel to make something that’s impressionable, and that will outlast us. I’m fueled by those kinds of opportunities when they happen in life, whether they’re personal or musical.”
Sanders offers his recent stint in August 2019 as bassist for the touring version of the legendary Irish rock band Thin Lizzy as a case in point. Mastodon are well-known fans—they covered Lizzy’s “Emerald” for 2004’s Leviathan—so when Sanders was asked by Scott Gorham, one of the band’s original guitarists, to join the lineup, he didn’t hesitate.
“That was something truly unforgettable, and just beyond,” he says. “I mean, how bizarre is life?” Besides the personal invitation from Gorham, Sanders found himself awed by the prospect of playing the very riffs that the late Phil Lynott, Lizzy’s iconic rebel frontman, had crafted decades ago. “Of his many great qualities, I still come away with the idea that he said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna take what I’ve got and make it incredible.’ But that’s a tangible choice. His magic was obviously in being just a fantastic frontman. Beautiful song-crafting, smart lyrics—there’s nothing I can really say that hasn’t been said before. There’s just an amazing and incredible charm. He turned his differences into one of the most powerful, driving, sensual rock-star takes of all time.”
As bona fide rock stars themselves, Mastodon are now poised to take the next step in their evolution as a band. They’ve certainly paid their dues over the years, playing small venues and bars by the hundreds while amassing a legion of fans from throughout the musical spectrum. They’ve also lost close friends and family along the way, and now that they’re well into their 40s, they’ve become more philosphical about where they’re heading. When asked to describe the chemistry—the mojo that holds them together—Dailor gets the final word.
“First and foremost, I’m just so used to working, and so used to being in Mastodon, and looking for the next thing, whatever it is that we’re doing,” he says in earnest. “But also, it’s informed by the personal—the life experiences. Obviously, we’re not trying to have devastating things happen, but they just happen. The only thing that I have any control over, in the midst of this, is what gets played in the studio, and I think that helps. It’s a great meditation, going in and working on it. Sometimes the only thing that makes sense in your life is the art that you’re creating. I just need it, so I’m gonna go after it, whether anyone’s listening or not. As human beings, it’s the only thing that has really ever made any sense to all of us. So we just go and do it because we have to.”