Tuesday, April 30, 2013



So while Remission gave Mastodon some mainstream recognition (being released on Relapse certainly helped, and "March of the Fire Ants" received decent rotation on music channels), it's really hard to debate that their real breakthrough album was anything other than Leviathan.  If you watched Fuse or listened to any hard rock/metal radio station or used internet radio or anything of the sort back in 2004, there was no escaping "Blood and Thunder" or "Iron Tusk".  This shit was ubiquitous, no doubt about it.  And that's great and all, I thought Remission was pretty decent but had a few issues with overlong stoner jams, so seeing that Leviathan only has one track I could consider to be of a long length (though it's twice as long as the longest track on the previous album) filled me with some rare optimism.

Long story short, yeah this definitely fixed my biggest problem with Mastodon's debut.   Gone are the overly dragging, droning, no-seriously-guys-we're-totally-a-prog-band jams ("Hearts Alive" not withstanding), replaced almost entirely with those mid to fast paced rockers I enjoyed so much.  Paradoxically, the hardcore influence has been toned down dramatically as well.  I still won't be upset at somebody labeling this album or the band as a metalcore band, but the noisy chaos is much more reined in this time around, with the riffwork being more controlled and precise.  It's more melodic on the whole as well, and is absolutely loaded with dueling harmonized lead lines, which eventually became one of the band's trademarks, if you ask me.  One element that was retained, thankfully, was Dailor's completely overdone yet charismatic drumming.  I understand why people hate this guy, but I personally adore his buttnards, fill-happy technique.  It gives the band identity (oh they're the band with the Shokan meth-head drummer, right?) and keeps the songs moving forward.  Mastodon is no stranger to the stoner metal tendency of repeating riffs far more often than they'd logically need to be repeated, but with Dailor's nonstop filling, it makes the music go by without dragging on, and that's wholly welcome.

Now then, if the stoner jams are toned down and the progginess is toned down and the hardcore is toned down, doesn't that mean we have a much more restrained and bland album on our hands?  In a way, kind of.  This is certainly much less off-the-wall than its predecessor, but I look at it as more "homogenized" or "focused" than "bland across the board".  To me, Remission had a ton of ideas, and only half of them really stuck, whereas Leviathan is the band learning from that experience and instead funneling their songwriting talents into the shorter, punchier tracks this time around.  There are remnants of that early fire here and there, with "Hearts Alive" being a thirteen minute jam, taking nearly all of the leftover elements they kept from shoehorning into the other songs and just cramming them all into one track.  The slight bluesy elements rear their heads occasionally as well ("Megalodon" is the most blatant example) and "Island" gets a giant helping of that chaotic noise that the rest of the album manages to shy away from.  But for the most part, this is a much more focused and song oriented effort, jam packed with memorable riffs and melodies.

However, there is one major, major issue that began on this album and would plague the band for the rest of their career.  That would be the fucking Mudvayne vocals.  I have no idea how I'm apparently the only person who hears the Chad Gray impression in the clean vocals, but if you can't hear it in "Naked Burn", then I have no idea what to tell you.  I get that Mastodon is a cool band and Mudvayne is a lame one so there's no way you can ever compare something good to something bad, but even huge opponents of the band who will find anything crazy to say about how much they suck and are a blight on the landscape of heavy metal seem to think I'm off my rocker with that comparison.  It only becomes more prevalent with subsequent releases, apparently due to the vocalist(s) blowing out his/their voice(s) and being unable to scream anymore, which is a shame but the point stands that the dirty croon of the clean vocals remind me of fucking Mudvayne so it can be distracting sometimes.

But other than that and the production being more polished (which normally doesn't bother me but it comparison to Remission this sounds kind of tame) and the songs being much less dense and heavy than before (thanks to the band abandoning the old tunings), Leviathan manages to be a good improvement upon its predecessor.  Where Remission had clear standouts ("Crusher Destroyer", "March of the Fire Ants", "Burning Man") and clear weak points ("Trilobite", "Ole' Nessie", "Trainwreck"), Leviathan stands as a more consistently enjoyable effort, with the only low point being the needlessly overlong "Hearts Alive".  Sorry guys, but you just are not as good at this long, drawn out epic style than you are at the short, to the throat rockers.

RATING - 79%

Sunday, April 28, 2013



One of the biggest metal bands in the mainstream of today (and I mean the real mainstream.  The shit capable of charting and the kinds of bands that people who just watch MTV for Jersey Shore reruns might have heard of) is of course, Atlanta's Mastodon.  I decided to start this series for a few reasons.  One was that I used to be a huge fan of the band.  Really, their first three albums were always in fairly regular rotation from about 05-08, and I think it'd be fun for me to take a trip down memory lane.  The other is because the reason this is a trip down a long forgotten path instead of a simple retrospective is because I haven't listened to them at all for the last four years.  Yes, Crack the Skye was so unbearably awful that it somehow managed to make everything before it sound like shit to me.  It was like The Matrix sequels.  And since I've stopped listening to them, they apparently became the new Metallica, so curiosity is leading me to re-explore and re-evaluate the band's career in some attempt to understand how in the everloving fuck that wound up happening to a band that managed to squander away their songwriting capabilities so marvelously.  So welcome, my friends, to Mainstream Extinction: The Story of Mastodon, and BastardHead's Expert Opinion on Why You are Probably Wrong.

So in 2002, after gathering up a huge amount of buzz via their two EPs the previous year (Slick Leg and Lifesblood), Mastodon managed to sign to the legendary Relapse Records, and start their career already a few steps ahead of most young, innovative new bands.  And their debut, Remission, actually holds up pretty well, even a decade later.  What this presented was a very hungry young band, out to set the world on fire.  Remission manages to do just that, with it's insanely chaotic approach to extreme music, dashed with influences of hardcore, sludge, and bluesy southern rock.

Back at this time, for those of you who got into metal around the time Dragonforce was was wrapping up production on their fourth album (never has a young person felt so old than in the metal scene!), there really wasn't a whole lot like Mastodon in the early 00s.  There were chaotic bands, there were noisy bands, there were sludgy, heavy, and bluesy bands, but few that wrapped all of it up in such a nice, appealing package in the way that this band did.  Even less so getting frequent airplay on MTV and a major label hype machine.  So at the time, this really was a cool experience.  The long, psyched out jam in "Elephant Man" was so different from the thunderously heavy "Crusher Destroyer" which was so different from the unremittingly dense "Where Strides the Behemoth".  It's a very fun, flavorful album, with enough running threads and common themes between tracks to keep the varied experience cohesive.

The one aspect that absolutely cannot be ignored is Brann Dailor's absolutely frantic drumming.  Bill Ward once said that the reason he injected Black Sabbath with so many drum fills was because he had trouble keeping time, and so throwing in a fill every few bars gave him the ability to break into free time for a short while so he could collect himself and get back to where he needed to be.  I don't doubt Dailor is more than competent enough to be able to keep time like a human metronome, but he emulates Ward so closely in the frequency, diversity, and intensity of his fills here that I can't help but wonder.  One sad, lonely evening as a teenager, I actually sat down and listened to the first two Mastodon albums to see how long they went without a drum fill, and I'm pretty sure my calculations ended up being somewhere around "every four bars, twelve seconds being the longest gap between them".  He really ends up being the leader of this band despite being the only member not to contribute vocals.  His showy, flashy style ends up being one of the most memorable elements of the early albums, and this doesn't bother me in the slightest since he's very skilled, and it helps add memorability to his performance.  So even if I ended up fucking hating this album, at least I wouldn't forget it.  I would at the very least remember the complete spaz of a drummer.

And luckily enough, I don't hate this album. In fact I feel like it's quite good, and has managed to stand the test of time as an enjoyable modern metal album.  It's hard to pigeonhole Remission into any one particular subgenre of music.  There are definitely huge heaping helpings of High on Fire in here, such as "Where Strides the Behemoth" and "Trainwreck", and not to mention the slightly prog rock styled darkness of the acoustic segments in "Ole' Nessie", "Trilobite", and "Elephant Man".  Unsurprisingly though, I feel the best tracks are the shorter, faster ones; the ones where the band just completely lets loose and delivers a chaotic, frenzied experience complete with memorable riffs and melodies.  "Crusher Destroyer" is an absolute fucking monster of a track, as are "Burning Man", "Mother Puncher", and "Workhorse", and they contain some of the most memorable riffs of the entire experience (topped only by the more crushing, mid paced number of "March of the Fire Ants").  Unfortunately, they also stand out the most because the long tripped out songs are pretty fantastically dull.

Yeah, "Ole' Nessie", "Trainwreck", and "Trilobite" do a decent job of keeping the flow of the album going, but as tracks themselves they're just needlessly boring.  I get a feeling that the "progressive" part of their genre comes from tracks like this, the long ones that drone on endlessly with jazzy percussion and long sections of harmonized lead lines.  They don't make the entire album boring, thankfully, and they're each spaced out by putting a fast, catchy song in between them all, but if you're not leaving the album on in the background or something (like say... reviewing it), they can be really tiresome and frustrating.  The band's strength lies in the fast and the midpaced, and most of these songs are indeed midpaced, but when their ideas are stretched out for too long, they tend to lose their luster, and that sucks because it means the album periodically loses steam after the first four tracks finish. They're just... not very interesting to listen to, and when you couple that with the completely inconsequential vocals, you find yourself listening to drum fills for seven minutes at a time.  Yeah, the band would be better off in the future when they dropped the idea of putting multiple long droning tracks on each album.

Overall the first four tracks are all great, with a strong High on Fire type stoner metal vibe, mixed in with healthy amounts of noisy hardcore and a very subtle southern sludge flavor, with "Burning Man" and "Mother Puncher" doing the same on the latter half of the album.  The more progressive songs, on the other hand, are kinda lame.  You can do without the five tracks that aren't the six I just mentioned, as they're really inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.  If nothing else, it's a very dense and suffocatingly heavy album for most of it's duration, even during the boring songs, and it serves as a neat reminder of the band's roots in hindsight, because they never got heavier than this.  I most certainly would not have expected Mastodon to become one of the biggest and most popular ambassadors for heavy music in the media's eye based on this inhumanly thick and impenetrable album, that's for sure.

RATING - 68%

Friday, April 26, 2013

Killswitch Engage - Disarm the Descent

The same problems as All That Remains, but far, far less shitty

Something right off the bat: I know fuck all about Killswitch.  I never listened to them when they were at their peak because back then I'd react to a metalcore breakdown the same way I'd react to a hydroflouric spongebath administered by Kathy Bates.  I guess I know the "Holy Diver" cover, and I know that it's much better than many metal fans seem to give it credit for ("Oh golly they added a breakdown!  Dio was rolling in his grave three years before he even died!"  Shut up, covers are always more interesting when the covering band adds their own flavor to it, and Howard Jones is a fine vocalist and the rest of the band did a commendable job and paid the song no disrespect by simply having the gall to love it enough to want to perform it, untwist your panties), but that's it.  I can't name a single song and I can only name one or two albums.  So believe me when I say I'm coming into this with a fresh perspective.  I have no preference between Jesse Leach and Howard Jones because I barely know what either man sounds like, so this much lauded reunion doesn't mean a damn thing to me.  I'm coming into this with my only prior knowledge being that the band plays metalcore and that the guitarist is apparently a big deal as a producer, that's it.

And with that fresh perspective in mind, my final thought is "eh, it's okay".  You see, when it comes to modern mainstream metalcore, it's going to be hard to top As I Lay Dying's fourth-time's-a-charm An Ocean Between Us, and so using that album as a measuring stick, I'd have to say Disarm the Descent is pretty enjoyable when it's on, but really lacks staying power and is absolutely plagued with short term deja-vu issues.  I can't tell most of these songs apart after half a dozen spins, and many songs share similar riffs and vocal melodies ("New Awakening" and "In Due Time" share very similar main riffs, for example).  These riffs are almost all pretty decent high tempo melodeath riffs that the metalcore genre has certainly made their bread and butter over the years, and while they lack any sort of immediate creativity, they are pleasant and do their job pretty well.  I can definitely see a circle pit breaking out during the intro of "The Call" or just any moment really.  Disarm the Descent certainly keeps the pace up and the songs short throughout its duration, and I can certainly appreciate that since it at the very least keeps the album from dragging.  The songs may all be kinda samey but at least they don't just drone on and refuse to end.  The sole exception being the ballad "Always", which, unsurprisingly, is terrible.  I dunno guys, trying to shove all this emotion into a track with that goofy voice just kinda backfires, especially when the instrumental portion is dreadfully boring.

And with that I should probably bring up the vocals.  The harsh hardcore screams are pretty good, nothing particularly noteworthy and they're pretty inconsequential, but good nonetheless.  Where my issue lies is with the clean vocals.  Now, As I Lay Dying sports some of the most hilariously wimpy cleans in the history of heavy music, and they always struck me as the sound of some poor shlub who got picked on in high school ineffectually lashing out in his diary, so Killswitch here has at least managed to avoid that pratfall by having these at least sound like they're coming from a grown man.  My qualm with them is the fact that it sounds like they're trying so hard to be emotional that they just come off as hilariously phony.  He sounds like an amateur theater enthusiast trying to put on a fake accent.  Every time they surface they just project way more than they need to and end up sounding so incredibly forced and dorky.  They're kind of reminiscent of Shadows Fall, just... goofier.  I can't help but imagine him in a high school auditorium, hanging out of a cardboard window, shaking his fist to the other actors while he sings "REEEELEEEASE YOAH!  INUHBIIISHUuUuUNS".  It's so damn funny to me, seriously.

The album also has a strange dichotomy in where the first half is more melodic and obviously meant to be radio singles ("In Due Time", "The Turning Point", and "Beyond the Flames" are the most obvious to me), whereas the second half blurs together yet somehow manages to be more memorable.  Tracks like "The Call" and "All that We Have" most definitely stick in my memory more than something like "A Tribute to the Fallen".  It's kind of strange, because even though the album is front loaded with obvious radiobait and the back half is slightly more adventurous in the sense that the riffs get slightly heavier on average, the sense of melody is suffocatingly prevalent the entire time.  This music is the metal equivalent of the logical opposite of something like Portal.  It's about as consonant and poppy as you can get while still being undeniably based in some form of metal (in this case, the ever popular style of metalcore that vigorously molests the melodeath scene). 

And frankly, that's not for everybody.  The pop sensibility works to the band's advantage when they go for full on catchy melodies, but the songs with blast beasts and easily windmillable riffs tend to stand out the most simply because they sound like the band is having more fun with them.  That's really important in this case because the album on the whole feels somewhat rushed.  The songs give the impression that not a whole lot of time was put into any of them, with most of them being paint-by-numbers templates of how metalcore songs are supposed to be written.  Most of them are pretty formulaic and all but two of them fall within the same thirty second window in length.  It's just... kinda there.  That's why the album as a whole sort of fails, it isn't bad, it does what it sets out to do, but it isn't very memorable and doesn't feel like the band put their all into writing and recording it.  This feels like a rushed product, and that's disappointing for a band that's supposedly making their thunderous return with their original vocalist.  So in the end you can pretty much just burn through this once or twice and shelf it.  It's got some good tunes, I think "In Due Time" is definitely a good choice for a single, but again, in terms of mega popular melodic metalcore, you can do much better than this.

RATING - 61%