Living in the Ice Age

Discovering Mastodon's North American metal heroics

Mastodon drummer Bränn Dailor, it seems, might be pulling my leg.

"You know that [Iron Maiden singer] Bruce Dickinson flies an airplane for Iceland Air? We were flying over there, and I was like, 'How cool would it be if we heard Bruce Dickinson come over the speakers?!' That's wild, right? He's like Travolta."

After convincing me that he's telling the truth, Dailor -- with an obvious sense of humor -- goes on to gush about how blown away he was by Mastodon's recent trip to Iceland, which wasn't originally on the group's tour schedule. After a gig in the Netherlands, they were approached by a promoter who arranged it with their European tour manager on the spot.

Last of a dying breed: The mean metal men of Mastodon
Last of a dying breed: The mean metal men of Mastodon

"Iceland offers this thing where, if you fly Iceland Air, they let you have a week layover." He describes the landscape as "like being in a Lord of the Rings movie. It was pretty intense to be there, really inspiring. We have a new song called 'Iceland' that's [going to be] on the new record."

No less an authority than British metal rag Kerrang! has enthusiastically proclaimed Mastodon to be "the future of metal." With the band's inventive blending of thrash/grind and midtempo/progressive touches (for lack of more descriptive terms), they are one of the bands that represent cutting-edge underground label Relapse's shift toward a more varied palette. No strangers to extremity, Dailor and Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher are alums of Today Is the Day, arguably one of the most extreme acts ever.

Nearly 13 years after Carcass released its grindcore masterpiece, Necroticism -- Descanting the Insalubrious, the question is long overdue: How far can metal travel the extreme track? Even as the form has tripped out into some really cool avant-arty directions, forward-thinking artists like Mastodon and Burnt by the Sun may be a gauge of the pendulum swinging back again -- at least somewhat. Certainly, it's not like either of these bands is exactly moving backward. But as they continue to mutate, they're not necessarily resorting to extremity for extremity's sake. As a result, they still sound brutally heavy. And the contrast is striking.

Dailor puts it a little differently.

"Look at bell-bottoms," he says. "Bell-bottoms started off small, and they got bigger, and then there were guys walking around with the biggest fucking bell-bottoms -- look at these things, you can't even see my feet anymore!And then a year later, it was like, 'bam!'down to the tiniest, skinny pants. I guess maybe something like that will happen. I think style and music go in waves of extremes; they just kind of build up. It just keeps getting more and more extreme until it flips over and everyone starts playing more simple stuff. With the new Mastodon stuff, it's gotten more King Crimson-ish in spots, but then there's songs that are completely bare-bones simple as can be. I think, even in the new Dillinger [Escape Plan] stuff, you're going to see some definite changes, some less-is-more.

"For us," he continues, "we want to try to make a big mishmash of all the different things that influenced us but not have people be able to point them out or have us be able to point them out. Like, 'There's the jazz riff, there's the funk riff, there's the Gary Glitter part, blah-blah-blah. '"

Mastodon formed after Dailor and Kelliher relocated to Atlanta from their hometown of Rochester, New York. They had just left Today Is the Day under acrimonious circumstances that they've always passed off diplomatically in the press. Kelliher -- whom Dailor refers to as "Uncle Bill"-- had already decided to make the move. By then, they had become best friends, and Dailor needed a change of surroundings, so he came along. (Prior to Today Is the Day, they had played together in the Rochester band Lethargy.)

Today Is the Day was already on Relapse, so the pair had formed relationships with the staff. On the drive to Atlanta, they met with label founder Matt Jacobson in his Pennsylvania home. "I think it was understood that if we got a project together that they wanted to hear it first," Dailor says.

Dailor met guitarist Brent Hinds at a basement High on Fire show. "He had an Iron Maiden jacket on," Dailor recalls with a laugh. "He was completely hammered and runnin' around like a maniac, and I was like, 'What's up with that dude?' Everyone's like, 'He's one of the best guitar players in town.' I think he knew that we were in town and we were looking for people to jam with. He was like, 'I've got songs. I've got riffs. Let's do this. I've got a bass player with a van.' That was Troy [Sanders]. The next night, I went and saw Brent's surf band, Theme Without a Face. I was like, 'Damn! This dude's badass.' He had a pantyhose on his head and a fez, this big-ass hollow-body guitar, some dude on a stand-up bass, and they were playing this insane psycho surf music. I hadn't lived here for two weeks when I met those dudes. It just came together like that. Within two months, we had, like, nine songs, and we went and recorded 'em [released as the Lifesblood EP], and we booked a tour for ourselves... I was thinking I was gonna have to write a bunch of songs with Bill -- which I was prepared to do -- but what are the chances that you could find a bunch of dudes who are like 'We love Neurosis. We love Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, Jesus Lizard, the Melvins... '"

Dailor harbors only fond memories of his time in Today Is the Day -- such as doing mushrooms with Napalm Death and making friends with members of Neurosis and Voivod -- and is happy to report that he and TITD leader Steve Austin are once again on good terms.

"It was one of the best times of my life," Dailor says. "It was the first time I'd seen Europe. Steve, I think, has been rockin' for a long time, and I think that a lot of things got to him. Everything was really new and fresh and exciting for me. At the time, he had been on tour for ten years. All is well with that because we played a show with Today Is the Day recently, at the New Jersey Metalfest, and I got to talk to Steve for the first time in four or five years. We shared a couple of cups of whiskey and kind of buried the hatchet on the whole thing. I said, 'I don't wanna talk about bands or anything. I don't wanna talk about the past. I just wanna be like 'How's your wife? How's your kid? How's your mom? How's your life?' There's no bad blood between us at all."

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