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With Leviathan, Mastodon helped usher in a golden age of heavy metal

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

The internet outrage machine briefly focused on Mastodon in October 2014, following the music video release for “The Motherload,” the fourth and final single off its most recent album, Once More Round The Sun. In it, an innocuously bland metal tableau of solemn white men straining under immense literal and figurative weights is interrupted by a voluptuous, twerking dance troupe, most of whom are black. Outlets decried what they considered a hard rock sexist minstrel show, with the musicians skewering minority culture under the guise of cheekiness, no pun intended. Band members, even one of the dancers, quickly responded to the critiques as online commenters pummeled each other, and eventually outrage culture set its sights on the next clickbait target. But during the short-lived discussion, few if any observed the strangeness of a metal band eliciting the same racial and gender pop-theory think pieces that, say, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” generated only two months prior.

The heavy-metal genre is arguably more wide-reaching than ever, and owes both its recent success and scrutiny largely to Mastodon’s second full-length, Leviathan. Released almost exactly a decade before “The Motherload” controversy, critics and fans immediately hailed the work as an instant classic, and it wasn’t long before the album’s popularity ushered in a new golden age for the subculture. Mastodon garnered a decent amount of acclaim for its 2002 debut, Remission, but it was Leviathan’s perfected grandiosity and accessibility that crowned it as heavy-metal royalty. The opening track, “Blood And Thunder,” features a hook now as ubiquitous within the scene as any Slayer or Metallica riff, and is arguably the best example of early Mastodon’s bluesy influences (referred to by some as its signature “deedily-deedily-doo” sound). The full band kicks in, and Troy Sanders’ raspy growl soon declares, “I think that someone’s trying to kill me,” setting up the themes of paranoia and obsession frequented by countless metal acts, but it’s when the chorus hits (“White whale / Holy Grail”) that listeners get their first true hint about what Mastodon plans on tackling for the next 45 minutes.

America was still retching up the last of its late ’90s and early ’00s aggro rap-rock and nü-metal bile prior to Leviathan. It had only been five years since acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit soundtracked a mob of thousands as they pillaged the sun-bleached ruins of Woodstock ’99. The week of Leviathan’s release, Billboard’s No. 1 alternative song (there was no hard rock or metal charting at the time) was “Breaking The Habit” by Linkin Park. While Mastodon’s album peaked at No. 139, it received nearly unanimous positive acclaim for obvious reasons. No longer would metalheads need to wade through the likes of Fred Durst extolling the desire to “break your fucking face tonight”; they now had this new band of upstarts from Atlanta, gifting them an ass-kicking, bone-rattling thrasher of a Moby Dick concept album.

Leviathan is a heavy metal epic that somehow manages to remain self-aware sans pretension, with gargantuan music that balances its literary message. Over half the tracks draw direct parallels to Melville’s masterpiece, with the remaining songs referencing the tome either sonically or tonally. Grandiose concept records are nothing new, especially in a genre with such a fondness for the dramatic, but Mastodon tackles this American literary monument with a scorching ferocity that is a natural fit for a tale of madness, death, majesty, and revenge.

“There’s magic in the water that attracts all men / Across hills and down streams,” Sanders roars at the first verse’s start of “I Am Ahab.” The delivery makes it easy to imagine the bassist and lead vocalist standing at the front of a ship’s prow, himself an Ahab, shouting into the sea. In interviews, it’s also a portrait that doesn’t seem too far off-course to the band itself.

“I kinda used Mad Ahab as us being obsessed with playing music and potentially going down with the whale or whatever,” drummer Brann Dailor explained shortly before the album’s release in a 2004 interview with the now-defunct metal publication Chronicles Of Chaos. “Playing music and touring being such an obsession, and just kind of like such a shaky ground ’cause it’s heavy metal music… I mean, we’re all like 30 years old and it’s quite possibly, almost definitely, gonna take you nowhere, you know what I mean?”

“Ahab, the leading lad, we can trust his obsession carries them / Meet us at the temple healing all the crippled,” sings lead guitarist Brent Hinds on “Seabeast,” a sprawling track that finishes in the heaviest of sludge hooks. The song itself lifts lines almost verbatim from Moby Dick, but it’s a dual purpose tune hinting at the fears of the unknown faced by both ship crew and bandmates alike.

Dailor and company’s worries quickly proved extremely unfounded. Reviewers praised the release with Isaiah Violante of Pitchfork, then buzzworthy, relative newcomers themselves, declaring:

Blending Voivoid’s neuro-thrash, Therion’s majestic gloom, Morbid Angel’s spirit of relentless and morphing liquid black melody, and EyeHateGod’s Southern rock gone awry, Leviathan is nothing short of supernatural… I can’t imagine why anyone with even half an interest in the preservation of metal as a legitimate art form doesn’t have a copy of Leviathan on his shelf.

Part of the album’s near-instantaneous acclaim is owed to what Violante so minutely, if not accurately, detailed. Mastodon’s sound, particularly on its second album, is a near-perfect, seamlessly transitioning introduction for those unfamiliar with a complex and daunting metal landscape. Almost every major musical trend within the community is represented somewhere amid these 10 tracks—from the blast-beat opening of the first single, “Iron Tusk,” to the death-metal snarl of “Island,” to the prog-rock instrumentals on “Hearts Alive,” the members of Mastodon serve as both travelers within and gatekeepers to the genre. Occasionally, the fluidity is nothing short of mind-boggling, best represented on “Megalodon,” a song that begins with the group chugging along in fine, brutal form before abruptly launching into a classic thrash hook via a quick, toe-tappin’ Southern bluegrass segue.

Mastodon’s home below the Mason-Dixon is never far from its music, and might be responsible for the popularity of many of the first new wave of metal acts following in its wake. Georgia sludge rock, most notably from Savannah and Atlanta, has since carved out its own wider space within the metal universe. Respected outfits like Black Tusk, Baroness, and Kylesa may have formed around the same time, if not before, Mastodon, but without Leviathan still ringing in listeners’ ears, they may not have enjoyed the success they received since. It’s arguable that the majority of metal bands rising through the ranks over the last decade owes at least some of their attention due to Mastodon’s sophomore success.

A decade later, and the glut of noisome rockers may be straining under its own weight. Labels and newcomer fans continue to search, much like mad whalers, for that next, elusive, thinking man’s headbanger of an album, while those who first praised Mastodon now lambast the scene as too ponderous, accessible, even gentrified. Brooklyn scenesters like Liturgy pen treatises on black metal theory, and experimental shoegaze-by-way-of-Mayhem groups such as Deafheaven play sold-out summer festivals on the same day as Jack White, Spoon, and Skrillex. Music may be fast approaching peak metal, but perhaps a group operating in a similarly maligned genre will step up with its own version of Mastodon’s breakthrough work.

Leviathan’s final track, “Joseph Merrick,” concludes not with bombastic drumming or shrieking vocals, but with a quiet, ponderous duet of guitars. As the full band joins in, a watery solo takes precedence, backed by the faint chords from a pipe organ. It’s a conclusion that mirrors its literary inspiration’s ending scenes: adrift on the waves, trying to comprehend the beautiful and terrible monstrosity just witnessed. The real Joseph Merrick, better known as “The Elephant Man,” was a soul afflicted by horrific deformity and pain, subject to the harsh scrutiny of the public’s eye. In many ways, Leviathan’s last song is a perfect finishing statement to both Mastodon’s second album, and the band itself. There’s a harshness to the music that is both repellant and irresistible, and has since generated a surprising amount of debate, analysis, and, most recently, vitriol. But it’s easy to forget the underlying humanity in the music, and how that humanity managed to influence over 10 years’ worth of new, badass rock ’n’ roll.