by Mastodon (released 28th May 2002 on Relapse Records)
The cover of Remission is muscular and frenzied – and fits so neatly into Metal record cover lineage that it makes me want to laugh. It made me think I was in for a The Darkness-style parody of 80s rock.
Nope. Instead, uncharted territory.
The album opens with an unidentified machine whining and what sounds like someone squealing with unhinged delight. Crusher Destroyer swiftly plants its flag in the soil with a charge of electric guitar somehow played simultaneously fast and slow; backed by surgically precise, frenetic drumming and distant, barked vocals. It’s pretty much all rhythm. The lyrics are unintelligible. Just at the point where the guitar seems to have coalesced into a steady dirge, the riffage morphs into what sounds like one of the Dead Kennedys‘ slower numbers. Which provided my first moment of orientation, my first chance of gaining some kind of perspective on this music.
This isn’t even in the same playground as The Darkness. It’s more like the dark twin of a Ligeti opus – all slabs of sound, but Mastodon’s are claustrophobic where his suggest light and openness, voices animalistic and stygian where his are clear and celestial.
The start of March of the Fire Ants reminds me of car chase video game soundtracks from the Nineties, but swiftly bounces off-road into doomy Black Sabbath territory. Lovely, crunchy monolithic riffs, still unintelligible vocals, and incredibly complex, disciplined drumming give way to a cheesy middle eight that sounds like guitars imitating an organ solo – strangely reminiscent of Europe, but this is swiftly kicked out of the way so that more pyrotechnic drumming and pummelling guitar can take centre stage.
The production on this album is so precise it’s possible to hear every sonic element and the way it interacts with every other sonic element (in the same way you can with Talking Heads’ first album – D Byrne’s stated intention to make music like a clockwork mechanism). There is a tune here, but it’s been broken up, dispersed, and rearranged so that there’s no time to get your musical bearings – it’s great pop music in a way. If there’s a gateway track on this album, this is it.
The third track, Where Strides the Behemoth, is like being mentally scoured. It’s all attack and almost painful to listen to if you’re feeling tired. But there’s an old metal tune hiding in there, albeit one that’s been mercilessly sped up. It reminds me of math rock, and specifically Battles, partly because of the drumming, which is stellar.
It’s only when drums are spectacularly good or horribly bad that I notice them. Brann Dailor, the drummer, is so precise and expressive, and adds such propulsion, if you took his contribution out, the band would collapse into workaday Metal. The drums were the key to finally understanding what I was listening to. Mastodon are all about rhythm. If you look to the vocals to guide you, you will get nowhere – the emotional content, the story, is in the instrumentation and the roles of the instruments have been switched; guitars often beating out a brutal rhythm like a gigantic polyphonic bass, while Troy Sanders’ barked vocals act like a drily recorded drum kit. The actual drums skitter over the surface, add emphasis, and lead the songs where they need to go emotionally.
In many ways, Remission is a brutal experience, but one not without its moments of beauty (in ugliness) and suggested transcendence (through pain).
Something that mystifies me about this piece of art is what the shouted, barked and screamed vocals are expressing – there are moments, such as in Burning Man, where I felt like I was looking at someone raging behind glass. On a technical level, I think it’s because the vocals are not high enough up in the mix – they don’t take centre stage. But maybe the point is to express impotence and frustration.
Whatever, it’s an impressive work. I liked the references to the history of Metal embedded in the tracks – at various points I thought I recognised Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Motörhead, late period King Crimson (on Workhorse) and Napalm Death. I like the fact that Mastodon accept their lineage at the same time as trying to make something new. And it was refreshing to see Metal as part of popular music not separate from it – I also heard hints of Talking Heads, Aphex Twin, Bauhaus and Taylor Swift (joke – just wanted to mention her, because I’m currently in the grips of a major Shake It Off obsession).
Interesting to note that the same month Remission was released, Queen’s jukebox musical, We Will Rock You opened in London. In terms of looking back at Metal history through a distorting lens, I know what I’d rather listen to and it’s not f*cking Queen…