2016′s Mastodon are in a pretty much unassailable position: they’re forever and for always part of the metal canon; they headline Bloodstock; they get kicked out of the Grammys. They’re made up of dedicated dads and they still get incredibly fucked up. They collaborate with members from Neurosis and they play Reading and Leeds to pop punk kids. They made one of the best sludge/grind records ever released and a few albums later dropped one of the best pop-sludge records the world has ever seen. In 2006 – ten years ago today – they broke fairly dramatically from their previous two releases and dropped the most out-there record of their career: Blood Mountain.
Blood Mountain‘s release was met with the positivity that many were expecting post-Leviathan; though press was largely on their side, some were bemused at additions such as a very syrup-y vocal production. Their previous material and workhorse touring ethic had already set them aside from their peers; Leviathan made it to the top of Metalsucks’ albums of the 21st century and Remission has always had a rabid fanbase. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that an album that branches into acid and math rock – as well as engaging with a psychedelic narrative – found automatic critical acclaim.
Sandwiched between two groundbreaking albums there has always been a sense that Blood Mountain has been a little overshadowed in the years following its release. It has a complicated place in the narrative of Mastodon records, but even slightly below the surface it’s so much more than the padding around the singles; even in comparison to the powerhouses bookmarking it, it’s a vibrant release that takes a lot of perilous risks.
Contextually, Blood Mountain bridges Leviathan and Crack the Skye. These records are essential listening for neatly arranged albums; everything flows beautifully from start to finish, and though the crescendos are a little unpredictable the conclusions are exhilarating and very satisfying. Blood Mountain does not do this. It’s certainly not a neat album and doesn’t fit the philosophy of either release. With an incredibly broad church of influences – where hardcore is wedged jaggedly alongside Genesis-era prog – this is their most colourful album; a patchwork of concepts both narrative and musical. With all this going on, it’s not surprising that it strays pretty quickly into being disjointed. It’s not disappointing that this happens – it’s not even inevitable – but alongside their other lauded releases, even to an informed listener Blood Mountain doesn’t seem like the architectural release that either the previous record or the follow-up are .
Disjointed though it may be, the narrative of Blood Mountain can be traced not so much through narration or lyrics but through the general feel of the music. A dramatically abridged version of the concept is that it involves a perilous quest for a crystal skull necessary to attain the next step in human evolution. A comprehensive understanding is not necessary for full enjoyment of the record; in any case this is mostly only obvious through information gleaned from interviews. The only real clues on the album as to the direction of the narrative are the quest narrative of “Crystal Skull” and the trippy spoken-word parts in “Circle of Cysquatch“; “visions of the hunted / beware the Birchmen.” This of course references the monsters of “Colony of Birchmen“, where the cohesive tracks come to a head- the track itself is preceded by a odd cut-off at the end of “Bladecatcher“.
When later songs don’t seem to mesh together especially well (notably the choppy “Siberian Divide“), they fit a more desperate end to the story, reinforced by the melancholic pendulous skin that rounds the record off. The record’s inception is of raw power and trippy exploration; “Crystal Skull” and “Sleeping Giant” are courageous, triumphant songs.
By reading the flow of the record in such a way we can justify some of the less cohesive material. However, in practical terms these tracks don’t tend to have much of an impact even after repeated listens; the album very much steers the listeners towards the more involved, constructed tracks. Crucially these are the more aggressive tracks. It’s the moments the primal, formless tracks crystallise that’s the great strength of the record, and it’s this philosophy that shapes some of the records that came after it which had much clearer ideas. This is the greatest strength of Blood Mountain and it’s one that justifies multiple re-listens rather than just putting the bangers on a playlist; it was the point where Mastodon made concept albums work on their terms, which they carried through to nail Crack the Skye.
Of course, this means that listening back reveals all the aggressive influences we’ll never really see again. Opener “The Wolf Is Loose” makes use of the d-beat that crops up occasionally in some of their previous outings; the hardcore drum patterns are almost completely absent later on later material, replaced generally with more straightforward rock grooves. The blistering drum intros of both “The Wolf Is Loose“ and “Circle of Cysquatch” are phased out with jazzier efforts such as “Black Tongue“. Neurosis’ Scott Kelly reaches a career high on “Crystal Skull” with “falling short of gauntlet / covered in blood-sucking flies” line. He’s at his most volatile here and sounds kinda epic in a punk rock jungle explorer sense; his presence is always a fantastic flourish for Mastodon records, lending them a raw power they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Can we talk about “Capillarian Crest“? Up to Crack The Skye, there was always a song on each album that felt like a throwdown to all other musicians (“Mother Puncher“, “Aqua Dementia” and later “The Last Baron“). What sets ”Capillarian Crest“ out is the rhythmic changes, as well as the sudden changes in direction and the impossible time signature tweaks; this track is truly a gauntlet and the first time in their career they really engaged with the math rock that their peers in The Dillinger Escape Plan were so keen on. Indeed, “Bladecatcher” has a similar vibe with its heavily processed, unintelligible lyrics and flurries of melody. Although it follows a predictable pattern it’s one of the most out-there tracks Mastodon have done; true Melvins-level weird shit. Even if we’re not presented with the sparknotes companion to Blood Mountain‘s plot, it’s tracks like these the help to flesh it out.
Blood Mountain is worth celebrating for being a watershed moment in Mastodon’s career. However, though in part the aim of this article is to re-consider a lot of the supposed shortcomings, we are faced with a largely unpolished record. All the bangers are focussed in the first half and grow steadily sparser. At least some of the mixes of the album have a hidden track at the end, the bane of anyone who, in 2016, might have the gall to put something on shuffle. The record is also lyrically rather silly in many places; “hunt for ogres and dwarves / lion slicer” may have hidden meaning but is a difficult one to decipher. What is a lion slicer anyway? Is it a tool, or is it someone’s job? Even 10 years later we may never know. Importantly though, whilst the album risks a lot and gets a lot in return it also falls short of it’s own gauntlet a couple of times.
In terms of following their own ambitions and bizarre influences, Blood Mountain is underrated as Mastodon’s most-out there release. It never really hits the criteria of groundbreaking Mastodon album that they set up with CTS or Leviathan, but in many ways this feels like Mastodon in their natural, unrefined form -all the influences, all at once. As we approach what may be their latter years, Blood Mountain is a reminder of 2006′s Mastodon still being caustic and unpredictable before the catharsis of Crack the Skye. Indeed this record feels a little cathartic itself; shedding the majority of the acid metal, the mathcore and the naked ferocity it was a much more introspective Mastodon that recorded Crack The Skye, and a Mastodon which had shed a lot of baggage that made The Hunter and Once More ’round the Sun. This album is the reptilian brain, the key to the next step in Mastodon evolution. It’s also an experience worth the gauntlet.