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Split your lungs with Blood and Thunder
When You See The White Whale!
In last weeks post I touched upon a dark time in the Aquanaut’s life. A really painful end to a relationship, a failed business decision, and an insidious appetite for alcohol had landed me in a very dark place by 2007. Things would get worse before they got better.
But I had company along the way. Previously I explained how Dave Vincent from Morbid Angel spoke to me through my tv. I got the message Dave, there was hope, but the booze confused matters. YouTube was new and didn’t have the reach that it does now. Besides, I didn't have a proper broadband connection yet. It was difficult to repeat the experience. So I drank alcohol, tried to pass as a human being while at work, and at night I channel surfed the music channels.
There was a lot of shite on the box. Occasionally I got some metal that tweaked my interest, but for the most part it was a haze of forgettable pop and club music. I didn’t see Morbid Angel again on tv. But one evening, just as I was about to give up, a song came on with a video that had me transfixed. I recall the song was ostensibly a metal song, albeit one with extremely unusual time signatures and distorted vocals. The video was amazing. It was a homage to the silent movie era. The band appeared as shadows on stage interspersed with scenes from a fictional movie. I remember the movie had some kind of nautical theme and reminded me of the Jules Vernes inspired ‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’.
And the song had the best, nastiest, head-banging guitar riff breakdown I’d ever heard, in the last minute of the tune. This was a wow moment. The next day, hungover, I couldn’t remember the name of the band or the song title. At work, I looked around for people to ask. The girl who sat next to me next to me? She had kindly explained to me earlier that year, that Lady Gaga was a singer and not an internet celebrity, that Poker Face was a great tune, and that I should really get out more. Nope, not her. Maybe one of the guys in my office? You know, the one who likes Cradle of Filth? I could explain to him about this Avantgarde metal video I had watched a few nights ago with it’s nightmarish silent movie thing going on.
That would have made sense. But because I was always hungover back then, I decided to research it myself (rather than seek human contact). After going down a rabbit hole of silent movies (I wound up buying Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on DVD in the process), I found out that the band are called Mastodon.
The song ‘Seabeast’ is from an album called ‘Leviathan’. A nautical themed album, it draws heavily on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I spent a summer in the USA in 1998 and in between trying to kiss American girls, smoking small quantities of weed, and generally hanging around after working 14 hour days in a New Jersey restaurant, I managed to read it. It’s a great classic. Years later, it’s perhaps apt that while I was unwittingly chasing my demise through alcohol abuse, I identified with an album about a man chasing his own through a singular obsession.
Mastodon are one of the few bands I would call auteurs of Metal. ‘Seabeast’ utilises progressive rock techniques, with unexpected riffs and guitar notes. Brann Dailor’s drumming goes along with the riffs as opposed to driving the beat. Brent Hinds and Troy Sanders share vocals. The song is unpredictable but never chaotic. It’s like they’re trying to keep a ship afloat during a storm. The music builds to the last 50 seconds of the song, where they unleash a riff that most bands (if capable of creating such music) would have put at the forefront of the song, not the crescendo. It’s masterful. The entire album is like that. The opening track on the album is the most Moby Dick-ish of the songs.
“Split your lungs with blood and thunder
When you see the white whale
Break your backs and crack your oars, men
If you wish to prevail
This ivory leg is what propels me
Harpoons thrust in the sky
Aim directly for his crooked brow
And look him straight in the eye”
Oh, and the video features a mad looking nightclub full of clowns.
There are more Moby Dick references on the album. Tracks like ‘Iron Tusk’, ‘I Am Ahab’, and ‘Aqua Dementia’ all reference the American classic novel. Interestingly Mastodon state they wrote the album while on tour. Drummer Brann Dailor was reading the novel while on the road and brought it to the attention of his bandmates that Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, was a bit like their obsession with trying to make a living out of playing Heavy Metal. By the end of the albums first year, it had sold 106,00 copies. In Mastodon’s pursuit of Moby Dick, they succeeded in capturing their white whale.
Mastodon have gone onto become one of my favourite bands. They prove slippery when you try to label them as one particular genre. Their early material is collected on a compilation ‘Call of the Mastodon’ and their first album ‘Remission’. It’s very heavy stuff. From ‘Leviathan’ onwards they became much more experimental. The songs became more complex, the vocals became cleaner, and they began to appeal to a wider audience than the extreme metal crowd.
I’ve been a fan ever since hearing ‘Seabeast’ that night, and the Neptunal chaos of ‘Leviathan’ provided the soundtrack to a turbulent part of my life where abysmal depths and surging swells were experienced both figuratively and literally.
I’ll cover more albums by Mastodon in later posts, so if ‘Leviathan’ is a little bit heavy for your tastes, bear with me. If you haven’t heard it, why not borrow the CD from your metalhead friend, grab a copy of Moby Dick, and kick back and listen to the finest collection of sea-shanties with down-tuned riffs ever recorded.
Next week: the pinnacle of aesthetic and creative potential…