The Guide to Getting into Mastodon

Cody Davis

The Grammy-winning Atlanta prog metal champs have a long, colorful, and varied discography; here's where to start.

Atlanta’s Mastodon emerged in the earliest days following Y2K. The quartet played a brash and thunderous brand of sludge metal for its first handful of years before morphing into a complex and imaginative progressive rock/metal band—only to become mainstream heavy rock stars not too long after. American heavy metal was in a state of flux at the beginning of the 21st century; Mastodon’s emergence in the early 2000s was timely, and arguably necessary. Nü-metal still held a heartbeat, and metalcore couldn’t quite find its footing in mainstream music. As various acts struggled to stay afloat through the early aughts, Mastodon thrived in a potent Georgia sludge scene alongside acts like Harvey Milk, Baroness, Black Tusk, and Kylesa.

Brann Dailor (drums/vocals) and Bill Kelliher (guitars) met Troy Sanders (bass/vocals) and Brent Hinds (guitars/vocals) at a High on Fire show in Atlanta almost 20 years ago. The now monumental rock group was born following that night after discovering their mutual admiration for bands like Neurosis and Thin Lizzy. Their talks over their favorite bands would quickly turned into band practices and raw demo material in 2000. Not long after the release of their first demo, they were signed to independent metal giants Relapse Records—a huge step for a band so early in its career.

Relapse soon led to major labels like Warner Bros. and Reprise, as Mastodon became labelmates with Cher and Prince. Their music appeared on Headbanger’s Ball (RIP) and in video games. Next thing they knew, they were traveling the world, headlining festivals, and, as of last night, winning Grammys. Mastodon’s ever-changing formula remains electric and refreshing; now as always, they offer something different, and have injected new life into a genre that's often resistant to change—much like Metallica and others did over a decade prior.

Mastodon as a band has grown into a metallic powerhouse. Dailor reigns as one of modern music’s greatest drummers, and he’s developed his vocals to a point where his voice takes center stage in Mastodon’s newer offerings. Hinds and Kelliher continue to be one of metal’s most dynamic guitar duos; the years spent noodling together have only made their layering, riffs, and melodies exponentially greater and more complex. Hinds has also became an exceptional vocalist, even as Sanders’ remain synonymous with every era of Mastodon. He continues to expand on his range, while anchoring an exceptional low-end with Dailor.

When piecing out Mastodon’s primary discography, it reveals seven full-length albums across 15 years of work; in addition to those seven studio albums, the band has numerous demos, splits, EPs, and singles. The amount of material is staggering and could get overwhelming—the depth and nuances of their work as well as the stories behind it certainly don’t make it easier. Their first four full-length records are all connected through a loose, elemental theme—fire, water, earth, and air. A handful of their albums follow conceptual narratives, and many of them carry massive personal weight for particular band members. There are notable and continuing guest appearances along the way (Scott Kelly of Neurosis has appeared on every album since 2004), and Mastodon has used each of these features to embellish their own magnificent works.

Thankfully, the band’s wildly diverse discography allows for numerous entry points into their music. Whether you’re a fan of gritty and loud sludge, technically precise progressive metal, or outright rock 'n' roll, Mastodon's got you covered.

So you want to get into: Sludgy Mastodon?

This is easy: start at the very beginning. Mastodon’s earliest incarnation was punishingly heavy. Their debut album, Remission, as well as their 2001 EP, Lifesblood, was rife with fiery, down-tuned riffs that packed an undeniable groove. Beneath the overall murkiness of these early tracks were signs of what Dailor, Kelliher, Sanders, and Hinds were capable of, too; Dailor’s drums carried a jazzy tinge, Kelliher and Hinds entwined complex riffs with relative ease, and Sanders’ thunderous bass licks and growl shook the Earth.

The shortest-lived era of Mastodon proved to be extremely formative years for a future goliath in metal bent on carving their own path, and there are still plenty of great individual moments to check out and discover.. The Lifesblood EP—whose songs would later appear alongside demo tracks on the 2006 Call of the Mastodon compilation—and Remission both have brilliant tracks that stand alone as mosh-pit inducing ragers. Crank it up and scare your coworkers.

Playlist: “March of the Fire Ants” / “Where Strides the Behemoth” / “Ol’e Nessie” / “Mother Puncher” / “Shadows that Move” / “Battle at Sea” / “Deep Sea Creature”

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So you want to get into: Peak Progressive Mastodon?

There’s a roughly five-year stretch of time in Mastodon's oeuvre that could be referred to as “peak progressive.” This era of the band’s music saw them shift away from the pummeling sludge upon which they built their sound and move into more expansive territories. Much of this change can be attributed to an immense growth in the band members’ musicianship. They began to experiment with different tunings, time signatures, and narrative concepts, spawning albums like Leviathan, Blood Mountain, and Crack the Skye, which are often thought of as their golden albums. This stretch of records did wonders for the band’s popularity in the mid to late 2000s and pushed them towards mainstream success.

Take their second full-length, 2004’s Leviathan, considered by many to be the band's greatest album. Leviathan builds around a musical telling of Herman Melville’s classic nautical epic, Moby Dick, wherein each song roughly corresponds to a portion in the book and delivers Mastodon’s first real hits like “Blood and Thunder”—which has one of the most memorable opening riffs in metal—and “Iron Tusk.” Since its release, Leviathan has consistently been hailed as one of the greatest metal albums of the 21st century—and named as one of Rolling Stone's best metal albums of all time.

Following Leviathan seems like a tall order, but Mastodon released another sensational record in 2006's Blood Mountain. This time around, the band whipped up a wholly unique narrative. A protagonist is on a quest to find a crystal skull that unlocks the next step in human evolution; along the way the character encounters numerous monsters while crossing strange lands. While the story adds to the overall appeal of Blood Mountain, it’s the continued evolution in songwriting that really shines. “Sleeping Giant” and breaks into pure psychedelia, while “Circle of Cysquatch” rips through thrashy riffs and even includes a talk box appearance.

Mastodon’s stylistic explorations continued into 2009’s Crack the Skye—a full-blown prog metal masterwork. Their fourth studio album—dedicated to the memory of Dailor’s sister—chronicles the tale of a quadriplegic person who can only travel through astral projection. After he projects too close to the sun, he falls and finds his way into the body of Grigori Rasputin during Imperial Russia. Like the astral-naut who crosses paths with Rasputin, some of prog rock’s biggest names found its way into Crack the Skye. Shades of Pink Floyd and King Crimson appeared as Mastodon tackled long-form, spacey tracks like “The Czar” and “The Last Baron” that take a listener on a journey. These expansive songs pair wonderfully against tracks like “Oblivion” and the title track, which both double down on the kind of dynamic interplay that made Leviathan and Blood Mountain so special.

Playlist: “Blood and Thunder” / “Iron Tusk” / “Aqua Dementia” / “Crystal Skull” / “Sleeping Giant” / “Circle of Cysquatch” / “Colony of Birchmen” / “Oblivion” / “The Czar” / “Crack the Skye”

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So you want to get into: Arena Rock Mastodon?

Following the success of their prior three albums, Mastodon took a different approach for round four. In 2011, they jettisoned grandiose album concepts for the more stripped-down emotional ride of The Hunter. While the album itself was named for and dedicated to Hinds’ brother, there is no narrative to string the songs together. Mastodon wanted to rock—and they certainly did. “Black Tongue” and “Stargasm” kept the heavier edge from days past, but songs like the inescapable hit “Curl of the Burl” introduced a lighter, even bluesy, tone.

Once More Round the Sun follows a similar suit. “The Motherload” and “High Road” saw Mastodon push further into radio rock tendencies, placing heavy emphasis on melodies and sing-along choruses (as well as big budget, splashy music videos complete with robustly twerking dancers). Certain songs harken to their peak progressive days—like “Chimes at Midnight” which could have fit on Crack the Skye or "Halloween," which shows off a touch of Hunter-style blues.

It was on last year’s Emperor of Sand and the Cold Dark Place EP where Mastodon seemed to finally come full circle.Their seventh album, Emperor of Sand, saw them process their own journeys through a metaphor for living and dying with cancer, something Kelliher and Sanders know intimately through their own loved ones' battles with the disease. The subsequent EP also carries a darker tone as result of these personal moments. Additionally, they produced some of Mastodon’s greatest moments. Grammy-nominated “Sultan’s Curse” and “Steambreather” highlight the more accessible front half of Emperor of Sand while the back half of the record is packed with nostalgic tracks aimed to please even the most stubborn of old school fans (see “Andromeda,” for example.)

While their newest efforts sound markedly different than the first few records, Mastodon has transitioned wonderfully from underground talents to mainstream titans. These last three or so albums showcase their accessibility and holistic appeal to music fans, much like their first four albums showcased their formidable metal chops.

Playlist: “Black Tongue” / “Curl of the Burl” / “Stargasm” / “The Motherload” / “Chimes at Midnight” / “Sultan’s Curse” / “Steambreather” / “Andromeda” / “Jaguar God” / “Toe to Toes”

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So you want to get into: Cover Band Mastodon?

*For more from Cover Band Mastodon, click the links on the song titles in the playlist below.

Across the years, Mastodon pulled off a number of tasteful covers of classic rock and metal tracks, showing off the band’s diverse musical tastes. They channeled one of their biggest influences, Thin Lizzy, on a rendition of their song, “Emerald," which appeared as a bonus track on the CD version of Remission. The foursome also pulled off covers from early Metallica (“Orion”), The Melvins (“The Bit”), and ZZ Top (“Just Got Paid.”)

In addition to their covers of rock and metal icons, Mastodon also dabbled in some indie rock covers on a couple of seven-inch releases. The band teamed up with singer Feist in 2012 to cover her track, “A Commotion.” Feist covered their “Black Tongue” from The Hunter. Also, in that same year Mastodon shared space with The Flaming Lips—the former covering the latter’s “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton.”

Playlist: “Emerald” / “The Bit” / “Orion”/ “Just Got Paid” / “A Commotion” / “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”

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