Popular music seems as balkanized as it has ever been, fractured nowadays into countless micro-niches. Nobody agrees on much of anything anymore, but here is the rare exception: Everybody seems to like Mastodon, the progressive-metal band from Atlanta that plays Saturday at Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre.
Hardcore metal fans who go for the truly underground stuff still like Mastodon despite the band's mainstream pedigree (which includes a Grammy nomination and lofty chart positions). And people who generally don't like metal at all seem willing to make an exception for Mastodon. Wrote one self-declared nonmetal blogger recently: "Somehow Mastodon wins me over. ... If they can make someone like me listen to metal, then they must be doing something right."
It's an enviable place to be, even if Mastodon's four members are mystified as to how this happened.
"I have no idea," says drummer Brann Dailor, calling from his home in Atlanta. "If I had to pick a guess, I'd say it's that all four guys in the band listen to a ton of different kinds of music, and we try to put it all in there. We don't rule out anything because it's not 'heavy' enough. So if a funk part rears its head by accident and we like it, we'll put it in there.
"There's no telling why somebody does or doesn't like something," he adds. "It's a mystery. I can't even tell you why I like or hate things. I always swore I hated country music, until I started hearing George Jones on long van rides. And gradually I had to admit, 'Oh, no, I like country music!' Now that is [expletive] up."
Last year's "Crack the Skye" (Warner Bros. Records), Mastodon's fourth album, has the group's usual array of whiplash, turn-on-a-dime tempo shifts, sludgy guitar squall and high-concept wonkery. As produced by Brendan O'Brien, the album's attention to sonic detail is truly impressive. On "The Last Baron," an elaborate suite that closes "Crack the Skye" at an epic-length 13-plus minutes, you can even hear the ding-ding of the humble percussive triangle amid the roar.
Mention that to Dailor, and he can't suppress a giggle.
"When it comes to percussion, this album definitely has the most I've ever done," he says after he stops laughing. "Brendan O'Brien does a lot of that on his records. He has a giant box filled with percussion instruments, and we had a few days set aside to go through every song and give each one a little more flow; add some extra groove to tie it all together.
"But it's ridiculous when you see us recording things like that," he continues. "'Really? Um, why?' It's probably a result of having too much time on our hands. 'We've exhausted everything else, so what now? Come on, we paid for this time. I know, get out the triangle! Let's do this!'"
Dailor says that O'Brien (whose credits include Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine and Bruce Springsteen) made key contributions by steering the band in the right direction. But maybe the most important thing O'Brien provided was enthusiasm, pumping up Mastodon's members just as they were starting to get sick of the material.
"He was able to get us excited again about something we'd been working on for nine months," Dailor marvels. "We were at the point of, 'Aren't we done yet?!' Someone needed to take our paintbrush away before we turned into Jackson Pollock, which sometimes is great but sometimes not. He came in and was just so enthused: 'You're not going to try to nip and tuck this 14-minute song into a three-minute pop song, are you? Let's just record it the way it is and make it sound great.' That's exactly what we needed to hear."
The wormhole connection
"Crack the Skye" had a lot to keep track of, thematically as well as sonically. It's an old-fashioned concept album in which astral time travel and Czarist Russia feature prominently. But for a long time, principal writer Dailor couldn't figure out how to unite the parts - until hitting on the idea of using wormholes for time-travel.
"You use wormholes to go anywhere," Dailor says. "Like Russia in the early 1900s. Boom, there you go. The story was about this boy who experiments with astral travel and gets lost in space, but it was at a standstill until I was vacationing in Russia in August of 2007. I read this book, 'The Rasputin File,' about a group of monks living on the fringes of society in Siberia, ostracized from the Orthodox church. I thought this would make for a good heavy-metal feature, because Russian history is very deep and dark."
Also figuring into the album's storyline is Dailor's late sister, Skye, for whom "Crack the Skye" is named. She committed suicide 20 years ago at age 14, which is something Dailor has struggled with ever since.
"This was a way to rescue her from that tragedy and bring her back to life, although I don't want to be so literal about it," Dailor says. "So it's masked in metaphors. A lot of verses depict actual events, but no one will ever know. She's all over the album for me, and the guys were nice enough to let me put her in the title. Everybody loses people close to them, but not many are lucky enough to have an artistic platform like Mastodon as an outlet. So I wanted to do something cool for her, for my family - and for me.
"I was 15, nine months older than her, and we were super-close. That was the worst. It definitely changes your life. Splits it in half. The day something like that happens, you flip it over and start again."