I deliberated a lot on how to start this piece. How can one even do justice to an album so timeless and revered; and more importantly, an album that has been written about to hell and back for over a decade now? An album that not only single-handedly jump-started the band’s illustrious career, but also manages to retain its impeccable excellence next to releases today?
One could start with a plain overview of Mastodon‘s trajectory leading to this album. How the Atlanta four-piece’s sludge metal debut Remission was deservedly well-received, with reviewers and fans lauding the sheer potential the band displayed. How their relatively unusual musical backgrounds – chief among them lead guitarist Brent Hinds’ country-inspired approach to guitar playing, alongside drummer Brann Dailor’s apparent jazz leanings – showed that this was a band that had plenty more up their collective sleeves than Remission let on. Or, finally, how the band decided to go with a concept on their second outing, taking heavy inspiration from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” in writing the album. Sure, context is necessary, but one runs the risk of sounding like a poor excuse for a Wikipedia page. Some love letter that would be, eh?
An alternative option would be to kick the piece off with an anecdote. My story is frankly a little silly: I found myself playing a Need for Speed video game in middle school, and smack in the middle of what was otherwise a hip hop and nu metal-heavy soundtrack was the crushing “Blood and Thunder”. Thus, with that very song, began a deeply involved relationship with heavy music that shows no sign of waning. Yes, that’s really the entire story.
Neither of these options do justice to what Leviathan really is, nor how masterfully the album lives up to the promise of its concept – all the while without devolving into some kind of simple musical retelling of the story. Characters from Melville’s novel, such as Queequeg and Captain Ahab, certainly make appearances here and there; but perhaps the most vividly memorable character across the album’s runtime is the ocean itself, and therein lies the key to Leviathan‘s consistent magic. The crashing waves are brought to life in equal parts by the thundering deluge of low-tuned riffs and chaotic drum fills, but said riffs just as easily find themselves transformed in an instant into the shimmering twinkle of sunlight against calm waters during the album’s lush instrumental parts.
Against this epic backdrop, the hunt for the white whale begins right out the gate. The timeless “Blood and Thunder” brings us right into the action: indeed, who amongst us does not have Ahab’s bellowing speech at the end of the song memorized at this point? Aim directly for his crooked brow/And look him straight in the eye – Mastodon pull no punches in getting the action rolling, and it’s no surprise that the song’s utter fury still does not fail in the slightest to leave one’s hairs standing on end.
But the pacing of Leviathan following the initial battle is what takes it even well beyond the high standard its opener sets. “Seabeast” provides a welcome excursion into calmer waters, exhibiting some psychedelic tendencies when dipping in and out of more aggressive moments, before the chaos of “Iśland” once again makes short order of that. There are peaks and valleys amongst the 10-track journey the album offers, ultimately serving to make it a cohesive and dynamic listen all the way through, right up to the earth-shattering climax that concludes “Aqua Dementia” (And God will watch it burn/Releasing souls/Within the wrath we wait/To be dirt again) presumably detailing the final battle between the Pequod and Moby Dick himself.
Leviathan ultimately doesn’t rely on its concept as some sort of crutch to awkwardly prop itself up on – it lives and breathes it, opting to do said concept justice more through seamless integration via careful songwriting and song structuring as opposed to plainly overt lyrical references. The concept sometimes manifests in subtle ways, but remains present in some form, even through the magnificent 15 minute track “Hearts Alive”, before the subtle psychedelia of closing instrumental “Joseph Merrick” gently washes the listener onto calmer shores.
Yet the sum of its parts aside, it’s the individually unforgettable moments that finally make Leviathan the masterpiece it is: who can forget the legendary drum fill in “Iron Tusk”, the sleek intro of “Megalodon” being followed shortly by a surprisingly twangy country lick, the towering chorus of “Naked Burn”? Mastodon demonstrate an impeccable sense of how to set up a musical moment with a masterful sense of timing, throwing out these memorable segments left and right while still maintaining an overall sense of cohesion and consistency. Not a second of the album’s runtime is wasted in the process. It’s a little mind-boggling to think about.
Thirteen years on: a finer modern metal album – and a more perfect introduction to the genre – remains hard to conceive of, let alone name. I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon. Perhaps there really is magic in the water that attracts all men.
(Bonus – lest we forget this magical internet artifact)