It is a Chicago spring afternoon: grey skies, the staccato tap-tap-tap of raindrops against the window of my dorm room, a day where the sun will only come out just before it sets. I have a craving, not for food, but for a certain sound I need from my music today. The desire struck me that morning for something raw, something that captures the sandpapery crunch of early 2000’s downtuned riffing and the uniquely lo-fi pop of those punky drums, something that fluidly blends together elements of early metalcore, sludge, hardcore punk, and various other styles into an irascible concoction.
I start with Celestial, the debut ISIS album, but the crawling, methodical pace doesn’t quite satisfy. Switching to the classic Converge compilation release, Petitioning The Empty Sky, I get a little closer. I cycle through a few more albums and finally come across exactly what I’m looking for: Call of the Mastodon. This compilation of tracks from the first few Mastodon EPs and demos, released by Relapse Records in 2006, is a godsend for any fan of the sort of sludge metal that was in vogue in the early to mid 2000’s; it’s muddy and swampy in all the right places, technical in a way that supplements the genre’s riffs and song structures instead of replacing or overriding them, and totally in your face with the way it flaunts the power it knows it has.
Call of the Mastodon is a fantastic relic of a time when Mastodon didn’t, in fact, roam the earth, and were still slowly making their way out of the Georgia wetlands into the world of mainstream metal, ready to set the music scene ablaze with their special approach to sludge metal. Combining off-time, mathy grooves, furious drumming, and Brent Hinds’ now-signature guitar style – with all of the Southern flair and chicken pickin’ that comes in that package – into an enticing combination, this is a look back into the past of a band that has come quite a long way, kicking ass and taking names the entire time.
Even from the intro of the first track, “Shadows That Move,” it’s clear that anybody who knows Mastodon by only their later work (i.e., Crack the Skye and forward) is in for a swift kick in the rear and a huge helping of where this band started off before becoming decidedly less abrasive. Did they lose their edge? It’s certainly possible. Did they become worse at writing songs? Well, objectively, they probably got better. But, did they lose some of that indefinably “Mastodonian” energy? Definitely. There’s a sort of cocky swagger to their earlier brand of rough-and-tumble, technical, Southern-infused sludge metal that is impossible to find in large quantities in their newer material, but it’s omnipresent across Call of the Mastodon, an energy that calls for just letting the shit hit the fan and having a kickass time rocking out to some of the nastiest riffs this side of brutal death metal.
I defy you to listen to “Thank You For This” and not rock out along with the band, as this track shows all of their earlier tendencies perfectly in a short minute-forty: chunky, groovy guitar riffs quasi-demonic vocals, Brann Dailor’s quick, virtuosic drumming, and a frenetic delivery all come together to form a track that builds up into a perfect explosion of anger at the 0:50 mark and just continues outwards like a speeding bullet to hell from there.
Every song is like this, too. This is the most quintessentially Mastodon release the band has done; each piece of music has the fearsome foursome’s fingerprints all over it in equal measures in a way nothing they’ve done since has. “We Built This Come Death” shows the band playing around with bizarre sounds and crazy harmonies, all built around one of the most breakneck, frenetic riffs they’ve ever thrown into an album. According to another Heavy Blog staffer – an opinion I certainly agree with – “Battle At Sea” is one of the best Mastodon songs ever written, hands down. Building up over an intro that lilts and lurches in equal measure, when these bad boys finally kick it into high gear, it’s probably the most engaging piece of music they’ve written in their 15-plus years together as a band. Every member gets a chance to show off on this track, too, and this is probably their most defining song across their career; it’s here on “Battle At Sea” that everything Mastodon is – or was, depending on your viewpoint – meshes into a perfect harmony of chaos and order, brutal and delicate, simultaneously both as crushingly straightforward and blunt as a sledgehammer and as surgically precise as a scalpel.
It’s rare to look back on any compilation album with something approaching nostalgia; rarer still is it to rank such a comp tape so high up on the discography of any band, as many fans do with Call of the Mastodon. However, there’s a reason for that: unhampered by their creativity, singular in their vision, and propelled by their destructive energy, it’s here where Mastodon first harnessed their particular sort of raw, unbridled energy through the prism of sludge metal to create music that is as moshable as it is memorable, as filled with hooks and earworm melodies as it is with destructive, high-octane riffing. Far from being just a nostalgic trip into the Atlanta quartet’s earliest days, Call of the Mastodon is a criminally underappreciated crown jewel in the gem-studded discography of these sludge rockers.