Ambitious in size and scope, Mastodon has emerged from a dark 18-month stretch with a recorded effort that harnesses the introversion and isolation of the pandemic and captures a moment in time.
‘Hushed And Grim’, the eighth studio album by Atlanta four piece Mastodon, is a vessel to carry all our woes. It is a massive record, in every sense: a double album and the length of a feature film.
Of its fifteen tracks, there is only one under four minutes long (“Pushing The Tides”) – most crest six minutes. They are expansive, brooding songs which breathe intensity, taking Mastodon to that deep, unknowable place they haven’t been to since 2009’s ‘Crack the Skye’.
‘A word that gets thrown around a lot, especially in our camp, is the word “epic”,’ drummer and vocalist Brann Dailor tells me. ‘So that gets said a lot, about a lot of different things. But I feel for a lot of moments on the record that we truly did reach an epic place with it.’
Mastodon has spent two years down the rabbit hole making ‘Hushed And Grim’. It has not been a comfortable place. The album is full of references to digging around in the soil: ‘If I could crawl beneath the earth’ (“Eyes of Serpents”); ‘I spend my days underground covered in ash and smothered in dirt’ (“The Beast”); and most pointedly, ‘I couldn’t stare as they covered you/Up with dirt and left’ (“Dagger”).
“Dagger” is the most direct song about the death of their long-time manager Nick John, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2018. It was what Dailor describes as a ‘major tragedy’ that affected all of the members of the band simultaneously. Mastodon built ‘Hushed And Grim’ out of that tragedy.
Although he had roared his way through “Battle at Sea” on their 2001 EP ‘Lifesblood’ when the other guys failed to turn up to the studio, Dailor first emerged as a vocal force on “Oblivion”, the opener of ‘Crack the Skye’. The imagery of that song is familiar to ‘Hushed And Grim’: ‘I tried to burrow a hole in the ground/Breaking all the fingers and nails from my hands’. The emotional burrowing of “Oblivion” uncovered a whole new dimension to Mastodon.
Mourning sticks in the throat. But Mastodon frequently articulate that pain, like no other band in heavy music. ‘I’ve turned the grief to medicine’, bassist Troy Sanders sings on ‘Hushed And Grim’ opener “Pain With An Anchor”: ‘The hardest pill I’ve ever had to swallow down’.
‘Crack the Skye’ was, in part, about the death of Dailor’s sister when she was fourteen. 2011’s ‘The Hunter’ came in the wake of guitarist Brent Hinds losing his brother. In 2017, ‘Emperor of Sand’ dealt with the scourge of cancer, which Sanders’ wife was suffering from, and that had taken guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother. These records are containers for their griefs. They want to honor each other by honoring their losses. Mastodon swallow that pain as hard as they can, and frequently turn it into magic.
‘To be honest, I’ve cried an ocean for this record,’ Dailor says of ‘Hushed And Grim’. He frequently broke down in his living room writing his lyrics. He wondered what the hell they were doing taking on a record of this magnitude. ‘I’m happy, I guess, that we got there because I think it’s necessary for us as a band. That’s where we want to go and we want to be able to tap into that kind of stuff because I feel like it helps people. But it really helps us, in the process.’
Dailor’s lyrical contributions are full of self-recrimination. He alludes to relationship difficulties he had while they were writing the album, and – further back – his relationship problems with his mother and sister, where, he tells me, ‘I feel like I didn’t show up’.
‘Will there ever be a moment/I won’t feel this heat coming up from ground,’ Dailor sings on “More Than I Could Chew”. Imagine taking the final death-plunge riff of “Blood and Thunder”, and using it as the underpinning of a whole song. That’s how heavy ‘Hushed And Grim’ gets on “More Than I Could Chew”.
Dailor’s voice drifts over the top like a painful memory. It’s an electrifying vocal performance: the sound of him wrestling with guilt and shame, ripping himself to pieces. It’s his way of burning those emotions away: ‘I’m just a guilty person by nature. I was raised to feel guilty,’ he says.
This is the first Mastodon album since 2004’s ‘Leviathan’ not to feature guest vocals from Scott Kelly of Neurosis. Dailor insists it’s not a prerequisite for Kelly to guest on Mastodon’s albums, as much as he’d like him to. ‘This life gets kind of life-y sometimes and it doesn’t always let you do all the things that you want to do,’ he says. Kelly simply couldn’t give it the focus he demands of himself this time around. What’s interesting, especially after the band toured with Kelly before the pandemic hit, is that his spirit, and the expansive Neurosis sound, feels even more present on this album – especially in the stripped-back, doom-laden bridge of “More Than I Could Chew”.
In the same song, when Sanders joins the maelstrom to sing about the weight borne upon their shoulders from ‘The great disruption’, it’s hard not to think about all we’ve had to bear around the world in the last eighteen months. The song’s triumphant mood change in its final two minutes feels like the pain being lifted by admitting it: ‘Say when/And I’ll come running back’. It’s one of the most remarkable songs Mastodon has ever written.
‘I mean, it’d be impossible to sidestep everything that has been going on, and it was on everyone’s mind,’ says Dailor of the pandemic. ‘And if you’re an artist, creating art during that time period, then good luck not addressing it. It’s gonna show up in one way or another – and those feelings of just… isolation. I mean, I was having a tough time. I was having some panic attacks, which I’ve never experienced before. And so all that, it kind of feels like the world is closing in. And the only way to maybe understand what it was (or what it is), is to write about it. I guess I’m a lucky person to have that outlet with Mastodon.’
Mastodon is a way for its four members to express their feelings to each other. But it can be a struggle to communicate directly. Dailor tells me he is not about to sit down and tell his band mates how he is feeling. Instead, they learn about how they are all doing in their lyrics. That’s when they often check in with one another.
This has affected how they’ve worked together in the past. ‘Crack the Skye’ saw long, heavygoing writing sessions where members stormed out in frustration. Hinds was struggling with vertigo at the time, but submitted highly involved compositions on acoustic guitar. Dailor fed off the vibe to dredge up his past. ‘The Hunter’ sessions were different. Hinds was ‘a wreck’ after his brother died and Kelliher was initially uncontactable in rehab. When they got together to write, it was for light relief. The immediacy, and near ‘pop’ sensibility of that album, was keeping it simple. Do you like this riff? Do you like that riff? Shall we put them together and call the song ‘Octopus Has No Friends’? Great!
As a lead guitar player, Hinds has turned up big time on ‘Hushed And Grim’. There is what Dailor calls a ‘big bunch of real estate’ in the songs for him to solo over. Hinds indulges the slow-hand bends, harmonics and phrasing which mark him as one of the most distinctive metal guitarists of his generation. He stamps his mark throughout the album: from the effortless runs of “Peace And Tranquility” to his bring-you-to-your-knees contribution to final song “Gigantium”. Dailor’s singing on this finale leaves behind the album’s strongest note of hope: ‘My love, so strong/Washing the dirt away’.
Hinds is in fine voice as well, particularly his lead vocals on “The Beast”. It is a countrified southern drawl of a song that could be by The Allman Brothers Band. That is, before its second half, when the trademark Mastodon arpeggios shimmer into the song, like beams of light refracting through a crystal skull.
Sanders is also inspired, preferring a more, well, hushed approach – his warm singing on “Skeleton of Splendor” is some of his best. As is his lead vocal on “Had It All”, featuring a solo from Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil. The song is weirdly reminiscent of a lower-key version of Skid Row’s mega-ballad “Quicksand Jesus”.
When they made ‘Emperor of Sand’, Sanders said that ‘the vocal mountain is huge and we’re continuing to ascend.’ On ‘Hushed And Grim’, they’ve reached the summit.
Meanwhile, from a songwriting and performance perspective, Bill Kelliher has become a rock of the kind they can depend on to build monuments like this one. It’s hard to imagine the hammering darkness of “Sickle And Peace” without him.
True to the scope of ‘Hushed And Grim’, “Gobblers Of Dregs” is the first of what feels like three album closers. An unbeatable song title, Dailor’s father suggested they could use the phrase somewhere, which is from a Buddhist koan by the zen master Huangbo. Dailor’s father is a Mastodon enthusiast – he listens and gives feedback to all the demos and early mixes. He’s not the only parent involved in this album – Sanders’ mother plays French Horn on “Had It All”.
Over a thousand years ago, Huangbo was a giant man from the mountains. He was reputedly seven feet tall. He had a mysterious lump on his head from hitting his head on the ground by strenuously prostrating himself. Huangbo might have been a character from the Mastodon universe: a world of invented creatures like the cysquatch and birchman; white whales and wolves; hunters, czars and emperors.
The gobbler of dregs is the person who drinks the grain at the bottom of the glass, believing it is the wine. This is a useful key for understanding ‘Hushed And Grim’, a grand concept album without an overarching concept. Mastodon has not dispensed with metaphor, but rather than get bogged down in analogous storytelling on this album (the ‘dregs’), they contend with their emotions more directly (the wine). The Mastodon that laboured to theme their first four albums according to the elements of fire, water, earth and air might not have written two lines as straightforward and truthful as: ‘All that I needed from you was your warm embrace/Turns out, that was mine to give’.
Maybe Dailor had his eye on Tool’s 2001 Lateralus when he asked their drummer Danny Carey about working with producer Dave Bottrill. Carey assured him he was going to get a great drum sound. And Dailor has, particularly the prominent Tool-like bass drum thud on “Savage Lands”, one of the more fiery songs on the album.
For Dailor, whose responsibilities as a vocalist are now commensurate with his immense talents as a drummer, it’s a question of balance. He is a machine gunner firing off the snare, but has learned to rein it in when necessary. The musical lesson of this album is how Mastodon excels when they hold off from flooding each song with multiple sections and maximalist playing.
‘I’m there for the greater good,’ he says. ‘Take “Gobblers Of Dregs”, for instance. I mean, throughout those verses, and throughout the whole first half of that song, it’s pretty sparse, the drumming. But that’s what it needed to be. I can’t be cluttering things up, just because of my ego. It’s like you said, there’s a lot of breathing room on the record. You have this realisation as a musician, or me personally, I play all the notes! I hit all the drums all the time. That’s my style, that’s what defines me. But you can’t really take that approach, if you want the songs to be good. You want to serve the songs – that’s one of the most important things. Otherwise, they’re not going to have the impact that they need to.’
Since we are on the subject of drumming, I ask Dailor about the legacy of the recently passed Joey Jordison. As I do, he retrieves a box from his bedside table – it contains a pair of Jordison’s in-ear monitors. Dailor first met Jordison when Mastodon supported Slipknot and Slayer in Europe on the 2004 ‘Unholy Alliance’ tour. He was sound-checking “Iron Tusk” and noticed who he thought to be Jordison out of the corner of his eye. Dailor had never seen Jordison without his mask on, and – frankly – he looked a little too short. They became fast friends, and Dailor spent a lot of the tour on the Slipknot bus, raging into the night slamming death metal and King Diamond records.
‘He’s one of the pillars of metal drumming,’ Dailor says. ‘He will always be that, you know. He’s up there with Vinnie [Paul] and [Dave] Lombardo and all those guys. It’s huge, his contribution. I mean there’s a whole genre of music that kind of sprung up around what Slipknot put forth. And he’s the heartbeat of it all – he was the driving force. The drums are really fucking loud on Slipknot records for a reason.’
Now that Mastodon have returned to playing live, Dailor feels a compulsion to give that little bit extra in Jordison’s memory. ‘I bet he wants to be there and he can’t and so I’m like… I don’t know… there’s this feeling that I’m having when I’m playing that I want to do better and play better for him somehow. I don’t know. It’s kind of weird. But yeah, that’s how I feel about it. Because I really do. I just feel terrible that things ended up the way that they did. But then, you know, there was nothing anybody could do.’
Mastodon are soon to embark on a co-headlining tour with Opeth in the US. As two of the longstanding progressive bands in metal, it’s an excellent pairing. Two years ago, with ‘In Cauda Venenum’, Opeth released their best album since their stylistic departure from death metal on 2011’s ‘Heritage’. Opeth recorded Swedish and English versions as a type of double album. It showed they are comfortable taking similar creative risks as Mastodon. But they are also very different, and it should make for a compelling evening.
When I speak to him, Dailor has just sent the setlist he’s been wrangling with for six days to their lighting director. As a co-headliner, they only have an hour and fifteen minutes to play. He knows he wants to open the set with “Pain With An Anchor”, which begins with a thunderous rolling Quad pattern on the drums. He likes the surprise of the nasty final riff of the song, the kind of riff that spits, ‘You want it old school – do you, punk?!’
There is pressure for Mastodon to do ‘Hushed And Grim’ justice in the live setting. Dailor agrees with me that it’s hard not to see them playing this album in its entirety live, as they did when they toured ‘Crack The Skye’, with a fully realised video backdrop and all the frills.
That’s because it is an album of, and for, our times. Released earlier this year, Jinjer’s masterful ‘Wallflowers’ offers something meaningful about the introversion and isolation of the pandemic. ‘Hushed And Grim’ truly encompasses this moment in history. Heavy music can, and should, adopt that higher register to address the calamities that befall us on a personal and societal level. Mastodon has answered the call, even if the white whale they have been pursuing for twenty-plus years remains elusive – if it ever existed at all.
‘I don’t know what we’re looking for,’ says Dailor. ‘At this point, we love playing together. And we like writing music together. We like getting in the room and having fun with each other. It’s really more about our relationship. Now, I think, more than anything else, it’s the four of us. We like spending time together as human beings. We see what we can tap into emotionally in the writing process. And make this in our eyes and minds and hearts a beautiful piece of art to put forth to the world. That’s what we’re looking for. And so with ‘Hushed And Grim”, I feel like we achieved it. And I think that we honored our friend in the best way that we could, and we let everybody know that he existed.’
Ultimately, is ‘Hushed And Grim’ too much? If it is, that’s the point. Metal is excessive. It overflows and overwhelms. As an album that mirrors the emotional intensity of these pandemic years, and a tribute to Nick John, it is universal because it is personal – and it aches. It is a dark mirror. It draws the emotion out of you. You can climb into this record and hibernate in it. ‘Hushed And Grim’ also happens to be Mastodon’s best album since… since nothing: it is Mastodon’s greatest album.
There’s nothing grim about that.
Hushed and Grim, the eighth studio album from Mastodon arrives October 29th via Reprise Records. The album is available for pre-order – HERE