Of Fire and Water: Twenty years of Mastodon’s ‘Leviathan’

Of Fire and Water: Twenty years of Mastodon’s ‘Leviathan’

- By Dan Franklin

Drummer Brann Dailor revisits "the album that changed everything for us” and propelled Mastodon to become one of the venerated metal bands of the modern era. 

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

[T]here is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

There's magic in the water that attracts all men – Mastodon, "I Am Ahab" 

Mastodon’s second album, Leviathan, was released on 31 August 2004. Its impact was immediate. It took the band out of the DIY scene in and around Atlanta, Georgia – gigs in VFW halls, bars and small clubs – and earned them a place supporting Slipknot and Slayer on the 2004 Unholy Alliance European tour, as well as second-stage billing at 2005's Ozzfest. Magazine writers and message-board users began openly speculating whether they were the next Metallica.

The comparison was apt because of the steepness of the band's upward trajectory and quality of their musical growth. Mastodon's first album, Remission, released by Relapse Records in 2002, was a magnificently gnarly and ambitious debut. The band stood unafraid at the edifice of heavy metal and carved out their own, very distinctive sound – strange, elongated melodic passages; appallingly heavy blood-rushing sections; and a gnomic, visionary lyrical approach.

Remission started a fire, but Leviathan was a tidal wave. A loose concept album anchored by Herman Melville’s classic novel of hubris, obsession and madness, Moby-Dick, Leviathan was both more focused and more intrepid. It was a whirlpool of influences – from Iron Maiden to Thin Lizzy to Melvins – but sounded wholly original. It took the listener on a journey from the taut, instant-classic “Blood and Thunder” to instrumental coda, “Joseph Merrick”, which sounded like alien music recovered from the bottom of the ocean.


Leviathan has been called the greatest metal album of the 21st century. Twenty years on, it’s more intimidating to mount an argument against that position than for it.

Drummer and vocalist Brann Dailor describes it as “one of the pillars of our discography” and “the album that changed everything for us”: “We were excited because we felt like we had gone to a new place,” he tells me from the comfort of his couch on dry land.

But Mastodon didn’t have any particularly strong musical ambitions going into the album’s creation, according to Dailor. Each album they put out reflects the “crop of songs that happens to be what we're working on at that time.” 

When Mastodon has jammed those songs enough and they’re deemed strong, the band records an album. For Leviathan, the music came together relatively quickly. Following the example of their musical heroes, Neurosis, they decided to use a tour in early 2004 supporting Clutch, spanning the east to the west coast of the states, to do something extraordinary by today’s standards.

“‘Okay, this is what we're gonna do,’ Dailor recalls telling himself. ‘We're gonna play all the songs from Leviathan. And rehearse them, basically, every night in front of a live audience. And then by the time we get to Seattle, where we're recording, we'll have everything all figured out.’”

As a support act, hitting another band’s audience with completely unknown material is either madness or genius. Or in Mastodon’s case, probably both. There are videos out there from the tour of the band jamming “Blood and Thunder” with bassist and singer Troy Sanders yelling nonsense over the top of the maelstrom, experimenting with the cadence of the song’s lead vocal.

By the time they made it to Seattle after a couple of months of touring, their engineer Matt Bayles was blunt: “Don’t ever do that again. Because you guys are just fried.”

This cross-country journey, discovering how the songs from Leviathan sounded in the furnace of the live environment, has the whiff of mesmerized obsession that compels Captain Ahab to pursue the giant white sperm whale, dubbed Moby Dick, in Melville’s novel. Dailor compares themselves at the time to both “young bucks” and “salty seamen” in pursuit of their version of what Melville calls the “salt-sea Mastodon”: the band's own creative potential.

“We had no idea what was on the horizon for us,” says Dailor. “But all of us were interested in experimenting with all the different facets of our imaginations, and all the different influences that we liked.”

In their latter-day releases, Mastodon have become more expressively “proggy”. But this progressive instinct was inherent to the Mastodon project from the start. Leviathan is undoubtedly a progressive record. Rather than shirk unconventional influences, they incorporated them. Perennial live favorite from the album, “Megalodon”, sees guitarist Brent Hinds indulge a protracted blue-grass lick in the middle of the song, before he and fellow guitarist Bill Kelliher turn on a dime into a raging thrash part that strongly recalls the second half of Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”.

“It's a strange juxtaposition that we love,” says Dailor. “Anything that can catch an audience off guard is definitely welcomed.”

On Leviathan, Dailor himself really brought home the potential of what a virtuosic drummer like Buddy Rich might sound like in a metal band. He typically downplays his contribution (“I was just playing my drums”), but the opening drum break of “Iron Tusk” was another moment on the album where Mastodon ascended to the pantheon of greats. More important to Dailor, though, was to “hook into the emotions” of his bandmates and go to the “primal places” that demarcates great heavy musicianship, together. 


When I previously interviewed Dailor after the release of 2021's Hushed and Grim and brought up the then-recent death of former Slipknot drummer Joey Jordison, Dailor told me about how Jordison used to watch him soundcheck “Iron Tusk” and its ilk when they toured alongside one another. It’s a fascinating image – two of the greatest drummers of modern metal looking on and admiring each other's playing. Both made their names as “busy” drummers, though Jordison’s legacy is perhaps more about what he did with his feet and double bass drumming, versus how Dailor crafted songs rattling off his snare.

Jordison also took the opportunity to make song requests.

“He would tape these notes to my hi-hat stand,” says Dailor. “Before we got up there and played. It'd be like: ‘“Seabeast”? At least the last riff… please?’”

Jordison’s pleading was understandable. Mastodon even made a video for “Seabeast”, but the song often didn’t make it onto their 25-minute “throw-and-go” support slots back in the day. “Seabeast” charts a course from otherworldly, meandering guitar lines and Brent Hinds’ trippy, drifting vocal, to moments of propulsive power, with Troy Sanders’ unusual scansion roared atop a heave-ho chorus: “Lower soul sent with gifts offering/Teeth of hope travel with/Child laid next to mother”.

That final riff of "Seabeast" abrades the hull of the song with its jagged teeth, speaking to the moments of heightened intensity the band is faithful to today.

“We always want that extreme heaviness to be a part of it,” says Dailor, as Mastodon's self-described “token metalhead”. “We always try to showcase that, at least a couple times per album, even if the other stuff has gone into some different territories as far as more poppy or super-proggy.”

As complex as their music becomes on the album, the band has rarely been more direct than on Leviathan (except perhaps on 2011's The Hunter). Coming up with the main riff of “Blood and Thunder” was a eureka moment. It is Mastodon’s “Paranoid”, “Enter Sandman” and “Highway Star” – simple, immediate and undeniable.

“When the first riff of ‘Blood and Thunder’ came together,” recalls Dailor, “and we had everybody in the room, we started locking in and playing it. We played it for 100 hours because it was so badass! And it'll never be heard like that by anybody else.”

In Dailor’s eyes, the band won the lottery with that riff and that’s where the addiction takes hold: the ongoing search to capture the magic of four people jamming on a riff like that. The next great riff is another white whale that Mastodon is doggedly pursuing. Except that it’s within them.

“The riff is in there somewhere and you just keep on turning over rocks,” says Dailor.

The genius of “Blood and Thunder” is also how it distills the essence of its source material, Moby-Dick. The exclamation “Blood and Thunder!” itself originated as a type of oath in the 18th century. In the novel, it is a call-to-action shouted by Captain Peleg, urging the crew of the ship he owns, the Pequod, to hastily leave port under the command of Captain Ahab. What makes “Blood and Thunder” a classic metal song is that, like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, it enacts the struggle and urgency it describes: “Break your backs and crack your oars men/If you wish to prevail”.

Unlike Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” from 1984’s Powerslave, that essentially rewrites the Coleridge poem of the same name for its own devices, Mastodon uses Moby-Dick as a thematic backbone. On “Aqua Dementia” (with Neurosis’ Scott Kelly on vocals) they go even further: to elaborate on what the cabin boy Pip experiences when he jumps from one of the whale boats and goes insane while temporarily abandoned at sea. 

The novel’s account of the cause of Pip’s madness is that the “sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul [...] He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.” 

The lyric of the song reconfigures Pip’s experience as an “invitation to clairvoyance”. The song's narrator sees into the future, and describes the abuses meted out on the ocean (and wider planet): “She is dumped on/Used as an ashtray”. The source text’s transcendental fervor remains: “The righteous go in blazing fury/And we cleanse the earth to bring it down”.


Another image from the song – of a “perfect fire to burn the land” – goes against the album’s predominantly watery theme. That Mastodon’s first four albums each take one of the elements was something they devised after the release of Remission. They used a fire symbol in the artwork of the album and came to perceive the record, as a whole, to represent the element after the fact. They sought out water for their next endeavor. 

Water as a theme was by its very nature hard to pin down, so Dailor bought a copy of Moby-Dick in 2003, while in Hawaii, as a way of giving the new collection of songs some structure. The book’s Hawaiian origins also explains how the fiery imagery of the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, Pele, might linger in Leviathan's lyrics. It also draws a (fault)line back to the eruption on the Icelandic island of Heimaey in 1973, as depicted in “ĺsland”, the album’s harshest, most dissonant song.

Dailor had just got married in Hawaii and was a long flight away from reuniting with the rest of the band in the UK for the start of a tour. But he didn’t want Sanders and Hinds, the band’s other lyricists, to feel constricted by adapting the novel for Mastodon. He honed his pitch to loosely theme the album around Moby-Dick on the flight as he re-read it, and the rest is history.

A lot of Moby-Dick’s value to the band also came from an aesthetic perspective. The white whale and the instruments of whale-hunting were perfect inspiration for Dailor’s conversations with cover artist Paul Romano. The band used crossed harpoons behind an “M” as a kind of band logo-cum-maritime crest. The extended artwork Romano created for the album is nothing less than extraordinary. He was fortunate to have so much raw material to draw from in the novel, associated source texts and academic research, combined with Mastodon’s lyrics and music. He went deep, like everyone involved in Leviathan. When Iron Maiden’s manager briefed cover artist Derek Riggs for the equally magnificent cover of Powerslave, Riggs was only given one word: “Egypt”.

Twenty years after Leviathan and almost a quarter century into their existence, the other remarkable thing about Mastodon is that they haven’t lost a member since 2000. Their Ahab-like obsession has soldered them together stronger than ever. Dailor tells me they have a “tonne of new material” they’re working on, and is quick to describe Leviathan and its success as the inception point of them leading “charmed lives”.

“I think it's a rarity these days, for sure, to see the same four dudes chugging along,” he says.

I doubt many would describe the audacious songwriting of the albums that followed LeviathanBlood Mountain (2006), Crack the Skye (2009) or Emperor of Sand (2017), to name but three – as a band “chugging along”. 

This summer sees Mastodon embark on the Ashes of Leviathan tour alongside Lamb of God, supported by Kerry King, which is a fitting mirroring of Mastodon supporting Slayer all those years ago. It turns out that lightning does strike the same place twice – even simultaneously – because Lamb of God released their sophomore album, Ashes of the Wake, on the very same day as Leviathan twenty years ago. 

Dailor never used to shop at Best Buy, but he was tipped off by friends that they had the two albums shelved alongside each other on release day. He called Lamb of God vocalist Randy Blythe in disbelief to inform him, then promptly went out and bought copies of both albums at his nearest store.

Dailor put Ashes of the Wake into the CD player of the Ford E-350 tour van Mastodon was using at the time. 

“‘Lamb of God is throwing down! They're going for it!’” he said to himself. “I was like, man, these are two bands at the top of their game, and really trying. I thought it [Ashes...] was some very well-crafted metal. I mean, just awesome. The riffs were sick and I was stoked for both our bands.”

For years, the two bands have spoken about celebrating the albums on the road to honor their “kinship”, fostered by coming up together in the early 2000s. It was simply too special a thing not to recognise this year.

“It feels like it's yesterday when they were written,” says Dailor. “They don't feel any different to me. It's not nostalgic for me, personally.”

When I first saw Mastodon live, at the London Astoria 2 in the summer of 2005, they opened with Leviathan's 13-minute-plus “Hearts Alive”. Words can barely do the song justice, because it sounds like the ocean itself. Its waters churn and boil; hefty riffs and shimmering arpeggios cascade over each other. Its exultant guitar solo is one of the greatest of all time. 

“Hearts Alive” plays out like a requiem for the sinking of the Pequod at the end of Melville’s novel, until the triumphant ringing chords and spuming rhythmic surges of its final three minutes. The aquatic grave becomes a site of stunning rebirth, as both Moby Dick and Mastodon breach the surface together, and make an inexorable ascent skyward.

It was a jaw-dropping way to start a gig. Will they do it again this summer?

Dailor won’t be drawn: “I mean, I know how we're starting, but I'm not telling you.”

For a band that can get as musically and thematically involved as Mastodon, Dailor's advice for musicians looking to get to the next level is simple: “You’ve got to make a killer second album.”

In terms of metal, Leviathan might be the killer second album. For a record derived from the story of a man determined to kill a whale (and vice-versa), in 2024 it sounds as vital, and bristling with brilliant intensity, as it did twenty years ago. Swimming below, eternally, into the deep blue sea...


Marking the 20th anniversary of the landmark releases, Mastodon will join Lamb of God for the massive summer in the Ashes of Leviathan Tour. On each night of the 29-date North American campaign, both bands will perform their respective masterpieces in full, offering a rare opportunity for fans to be a part of history. 

In addition to the magnitude of the monumental tour, Ashes of Leviathan will also feature a walloping supporting roster, with opening sets from Kerry King and Sheffield's finest Malevolence kicking off the festivities. Massachusetts veterans Unearth also joining the run in select dates. 

Get tickets - HERE
The Ashes Of Leviathan Tour
Fri, Jul-19 Grand Prairie, TX Texas Trust CU Theatre
Sat, Jul-20 Austin, TX Germania Insurance Amphitheater
Sun, Jul 21 Houston, TX 713 Music Hall
Tue, Jul-23 Jacksonville, FL Daily’s Place
Wed, Jul-24 Orlando, FL Orlando Amphitheater
Thu, Jul-25 Alpharetta, GA Ameris Bank Amphitheatre
Sat, Jul-27 Raleigh, NC The Red Hat Amphitheater
Sun, Jul-28 Richmond, VA Virgin Credit Union LIVE!
Tue, Jul-30 Pittsburgh, PA Stage AE
Wed, Jul-31 London, ON Budweiser Gardens
Thu, Aug 01 Montreal, QC Bell Centre
Sat, Aug 03 Uncasville, CT Mohegan Sun Arena
Sun, Aug-04 Manchester, NH SNHU Arena
Tue, Aug-06 Bangor, ME Maine Savings Amphitheater
Thu, Aug 08 Reading, PA Santander Arena **
Fri, Aug-09 Cleveland, OH Jacobs Pavilion **
Sat, Aug 10 Sterling Heights, MI Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre @ Freedom Hill **
Tue, Aug-13 Moorhead, MN Bluestem Center For The Arts Amphitheater
Thu, Aug 15 Calgary, AB Scotiabank Saddledome
Fri, Aug 16 Penticton, BC South Okanagan Events Centre
Sat, Aug 17 Kent, WA accesso ShoWare Center 
Sun, Aug 18 Portland, OR Theatre of the Clouds
Wed, Aug 21 Los Angeles, CA The Kia Forum
Fri, Aug 23 Phoenix, AZ Arizona Financial Theatre
Sat, Aug 24 Rio Rancho NM Rio Rancho Events Center
Sun, Aug 25 El Paso, TX El Paso County Coliseum
Tue, Aug 27 Magna, UT The Great Saltair
Thu, Aug 29 Morrison, CO Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Sat, Aug 31 Omaha, NE The Astro Amphitheater
**No Malevolence, Support from Kerry King & Unearth

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