Unicorns will never be cool. Nor will ligers or hippogriffs. But they will all always be awesome.
Heavy metal is like those fabled creatures. It's a fantasy world for geeks, a path of least resistance where geeks can imagine they are just misunderstood badasses with souls too black for all that football/cheerleader rah-rah bullshit. With metal, geeks get to pretend they chose to be outcasts. And the ranks of the outcasts are swelling as the geeks are doing some really cool things with metal's almost 40-year legacy.
Looking at both mythical and metal beasts, you'll immediately notice hybridization is a common denominator. On the one hand, you've got your mythological chimeras -- part goat, lion and snake, all ill-tempered. In the musical arena, you've got mercurial originators such as Iron Maiden -- whose initial springboards included punk's bristly jolts and prog's airs -- and contemporary innovators such as Atlanta's own Mastodon -- the illegitimate seed of Maiden and Metallica's thrash and serrated grindcore. These acts reconcile styles like a sphinx learns to both riddle and roar. They are brawny crossbreeds.
Maiden and Mastodon are putting out albums within a week of one another. On Sept. 5, Maiden released A Matter of Life and Death (hereforth AMOLAD), the New Wave of British metal quintet-cum-sextet's 14th studio album (10th with signature vocalist Bruce Dickinson). Mastodon's racked up the four-headed behemoth's third full-length with Blood Mountain, out Sept. 12. For metal fans, this confluence is like finding out their favorite sci-fi siren did softcore porn -- it's the sweetest sickness, brosef.
At the core of metal's landmark albums and acts is the struggle of the individual versus a mighty force. When you pray to the unpredictable metal gods, you don't ask them to dictate things for you, you seek advice to do something for yourself. And these themes hold strong throughout AMOLAD and Blood Mountain.
In the case of Iron Maiden's album, the evil that men do is being led by spiritless spiritual leaders and into war (an undercurrent through many of Maiden's albums). Metal fans are integrally integrity-prizing soldiers. But what's even more classic than the album's lyrical gist is its musical heft.
When it comes to pairing high concepts with a low tolerance for bullshit, Iron Maiden built the pyramids, so to speak. Seriously, peep the cover of 1984's Powerslave to see Maiden's zombie mascot Eddie in Egyptian regalia, then headbang to a song based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge poems. The 1988 full-length Seventh Son of a Seventh Son was a knotty story arc following clairvoyants, holocaustic prophecies and quests (a triumph of which Mastodon is well aware).
Now AMOLAD harkens back to that period's conceptually complex riff runs, but stripped of excess studio polish and hyperrealism. Iron Maiden again sounds like a band that can command an arena. Really, who else could make crowds mosh to wailing epics inspired by Frank Herbert's Dune? Add sandworms to the list of mythical metal beasts. Like 2003's Dance of Death, AMOLAD is loose and punchy, but less paunchy. Even in its most dense, ominous and proggiest moments, the melody isn't as prone to meander into melodrama (even while sticking to Maiden's "operatic" style).
Much like Maiden, Mastodon emerged from a hail of flagellating post-hardcore. Bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, guitarist Bill Kelliher, guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds and drummer Bränn Dailor burst from the fiery crust with 2002's Remission and then breach-birthed 2004's thematic, lurching Leviathan. But Maiden took six years and five albums to fully emboss its steely yet lissome tack with post-psychedelic, sci-fi dementia. Mastodon apparently wants this spirit all within Blood Mountain's hour. Maybe it's metal's ADD that explains the recent love of prog's amalgams -- who has time to ride a rattlesnake, buffalo and gargoyle separately?
On Blood Mountain, Mastodon sloughs off some sludge in favor of a less aggro, more penetrable album. Sanders admitted in a June interview that the band's own geekdom drove it to populate Blood Mountain with tales of battling both fear and feral beasts throughout a quest for knowledge (embodied as a crystal skull). This formula allows Mastodon's own increasingly melodic, droning vocals -- as well as guest vocalists, including Neurosis' Scott Kelly, the Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme -- an opportunity to chronicle sleeping giants, circles of cysquatch and colonies of birchmen atop hallmarks of metalcore, gloom-thrash, British metal and, more than ever, prog's metastasized spatial indulgence.
But as the journey spirals around Blood Mountain, it becomes apparent that Mastodon's carnage vs. catharsis ratio has shifted a little in favor of the latter. Gone is some of the band's majestic froth and amphetamine founts for a bluesy, woozy emotion -- perhaps it's the Thin Lizzy the band has admitted to digging. Despite the literary beasts, Mastodon now seems more mortal. And Blood Mountain demands more attention by not immediately hijacking your attention completely.
Of course, metal's mighty force has always projected and rewarded effort. And Blood Mountain is the quintessential transition album. It's solid (certainly more so than much of the competition), at times spectacular, yet also at times obscured by hallucinatory ambition. But it's certainly worth adding to the catalog and being mined for its splendors (already proven most potent live). Perhaps Mastodon's quest for knowledge will take the band next to what has fueled some of Maiden's finest, most focused Viking hours: a humanist outrage, because beyond the griffins and black hearts, geeks are some seriously passionate people. And there's certainly time. After all, like a mother's unconditional love, metal isn't going anywhere. So all heshers take note: Your mastodon-ridden-by-Eddie-trampling-a-unicorn-stabbing-a-dragon tattoo will never make you cool, but it still makes you awesome.
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