Welcome to Connecting the Dots, the column where we give a brief rundown on a central band along with a host of other projects their members, both past and present, have been involved in. Today we’ll be focusing on progressive sludge powerhouse Mastodon and the myriad of projects they’ve been involved with.
2018 lineup: Brent Hinds (Guitars/Vocals), Bill Kelliher (Guitars), Troy Sanders (Bass/Vocals) and Brann Dailor (Drums/Vocals).
Since their formation in 2000, Mastodon has proven to be one of the most consistent bands in metal. Despite a host of personal tragedies and setbacks over the years and multiple side projects, they’ve managed to channel their emotions into their music and continue to pump out records on a regular basis. We’ve never needed to wait more than three years for a record, which is some feat for a band approaching its 20th birthday. Yet, the quality has been just as consistent. In fact, one could mount a strong argument that they’ve never released a bad album. They exploded onto the scene with a visceral fury, two vocalists, and a mountain of riffs. Seven records later, of which four have been full-blown concept albums, the riffs are still there, but they’ve got a tri-vocal approach, a Grammy under their belt and they’ve expanded their musical boundaries. The quartet is equally comfortable playing psychedelic rock, sludge, progressive rock, hard rock and anything in between, and given their remarkable consistency to date, we can’t wait to hear what they do next.
Track to check out: “The Czar”
Killer Be Killed
Troy Sanders (Bass/Vocals)
Most supergroups fail to live up to the hype, the whole rarely even approaching the sum of its parts. Putting a bunch of talented people together simply isn’t enough when it comes to producing quality, impactful music. Killer Be Killed turned this stereotype on its head, their self-titled debut proving to be one of the best records from 2014. The songs are predominantly written by Max Cavalera (Soulfly, Cavalera Conspiracy, ex-Sepultura), so you know what you’re going to get: tons of groove, explosions of thrash and berserker-level aggression.
The record treads the remarkably fine line of writing accessible songs that typify much of metal’s preeminent characteristics without being derivative or generic. They pull it off remarkably well, with their tri-vocal approach helping to set them apart and add unique flavours to different songs and segments. Greg Puciato’s (ex-The Dillinger Escape Plan, The Black Queen) cleans and high-pitched shrieks work wonderfully alongside Troy Sanders’ wonderfully thick, raspy tones and Max’s bazooka of a voice.
David Elitch (ex-The Mars Volta) offered great dexterity on the drums to complete this powerful package and, whilst he’s since left the band, his replacement Ben Koller (Converge, Mutoid Man) leaves nothing to be desired. With a new album reportedly in the works, we’re well and truly aboard the hype train. If you haven’t already, then jump on board – it’s sure to be a wild ride.
Track to check out: “Melting of My Marrow”
Gone Is Gone
Troy Sanders (Bass/Vocals)
Gone Is Gone is another Troy Sanders project and, whilst not quite as illustrious as Killer Be Killed, another supergroup. He’s joined by guitarist Troy van Leeuwen (Queens of the Stone Age, ex-A Perfect Circle), drummer Tony Hajjar (At The Drive In, ex-Sparta) and multi-instrumentalist and soundtrack composer Mike Zarin. The band predominantly operate within two sonic territories. One is guitar-driven hard rock with the occasional hint of atmospherics or electronics for added texture. The other is a more ambient and atmospheric approach, where Zarin’s keyboards, synths and samples take the lead role as the band takes a more cinematic approach. Either way, Troy’s gravelly tones are ever-present as he continues to cement himself as one of the most distinctive voices in metal.
Their self-titled debut EP from 2016 was a solid outing which showcased the band’s potential, but showed they hadn’t quite nailed down a balance between their two sounds. A full-length, Echolocation, followed in 2017, but the same issues prevailed. The band are unmistakably at their best when Zarin’s soundscapes are the predominant voice. The sooner the band decide to double-down on his talents and focus their energies there, the better, Until then, we have a select few songs here and there that whet our appetite and offer a peek at what could be.
Track to check out: “Starlight”
Brann Dailor (vocals/drums)
For some albums, I would have just loved to be present for a pitch: “Picture this, OK? A science fiction concept album, right? But it has way more synths than guitars, OK? And Brann Dailor plays the drums and does vocals!”. I would have screamed “sold” faster than you could say “the wolf is loose”. And loose it is; Arcadea, which is all of the above in a super well produced and made package, goes incredibly hard. Something about Dailor’s unique and dexterous approach to drums just works so well with the tripped out, retro-futuristic, 80’s drenched synth tones that make up the meat of Arcadea’s self-titled, debut release. The thing which makes it so successful for me is how the virtuosity of all involved, including guitarist/keyboardist Core Atoms (Zruda, Gaylord) and keyboardist/guitarist Raheem Amlani (Withered, Scarab), does a lot to dispel the heavy fumes of psychedelia which surround the album. Where, in other works like this, the tones would have gotten super tired, really fast, here they’re constantly uplifted by the unique work being done on all instruments.
Track to check out: “Gas Giant”
– Eden Kupermintz
Troy Sanders (Bass/Vocals)
Did someone say supergroup? The list of names that have been involved in Metal Allegiance is, frankly, ridiculous. Founded by bassist Mark Menghi, who writes most of the songs, the band’s official members include David Ellefson (Megadeth), Alex Skolnick (Testament) and Mike Portnoy (The Winery Dogs, ex-Dream Theater). However, their list of guests includes, but is not limited to, Randy Blythe (Lamb of God), Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil), Matt Heafy (Trivium), Alissa White-Gluz (Arch Enemy, ex-The Agonist), Gary Holt (Exodus, Slayer), Phil Demmel (Machine Head), Andreas Kisser (Sepultura), Misha Mansoor (Periphery), Ben Weinman (ex-The Dillinger Escape Plan) etc. Likewise, Troy Sanders has featured on two songs and performed with the band numerous times live, earning them a spot on this list. Whilst the band’s output is an incredible feat of networking and logistics, unfortunately, the music leaves a fair bit to be desired. It’s not bad, so if you want some stock-standard metal tunes with a revolving cast of all-star names: this one’s for you. However, it rarely ventures into any particularly interesting territory. Still, it’s great that this kind of thing exists and it looks like it’d be a lot of fun to see live.
Track to check out: “Let Darkness Fall”
Bill Kelliher (Guitar), Brann Dailor (Drums)
Before Mastodon even existed, Bill and Brann were together in technical death metal band Lethargy. The band released their one and only album, It’s Hard to Write with a Little Hand, in 1996 and it’s unfortunate the band are as obscure as they are. The album holds up to this day, with a classic 90’s tech/prog death sound. The guitar work is particularly reminiscent of early Cynic or Ron Jarzombek, which needless to say is high praise indeed. The band also incorporated math elements, with certain sections having a proto-The Dillinger Escape Plan vibe. You can even hear the beginnings of Mastodon, with rumbling bass and a selection of riffs that would go on to form the distinctive style we know and love today. If any of the above names sound vaguely up your alley then you owe it to yourself to check this record out – it’s really great stuff, particularly when you account for the context and time in which it was made.
Track to check out: “Careborne”
Giraffe Tongue Orchestra
Brent Hinds (guitars)
In 2011, Mastodon and The Dillinger Escape Plan headed out on tour together – first across the US, then onwards into Europe. Something magical must have happened over the course of those tours, as Giraffe Tongue Orchestra quickly followed Killer Be Killed to become the second side-project/supergroup to feature members of both bands. Giraffe Tongue Orchestra features Dillinger’s mastermind Ben Weinman and Mastodon’s Brent Hinds on guitars, with Thomas Pridgen on drums, Dethklok’s Pete Griffin on bass and is fronted by William Duvall, a man used to filling big shoes thanks to picking up Layne Staley’s microphone for Alice in Chains. Juliette Lewis was originally tagged as a potential lead vocalist during the band’s long gestational period, but instead has limited her involvement to backing vocals on “Back To The Light”.
Broken Lines is very much a rock, rather than a metal album. With no high-minded progressive concepts and very infrequent mathcore freakouts, it is a collection of unashamedly no-nonsense, feel-good rock songs. At times, Broken Lines exhibits a certain Dillinger-esque tense, nervous energy, but goes about creating it in an entirely different fashion. Its maturity, subtlety and self-assuredness is evident in every note: nobody in this band has anything to prove, so they are free to relax and enjoy themselves. The results are intoxicating.
Whilst there are no really awkward curveballs to deal with on Broken Lines, there are still some pleasantly unexpected moments, like the distinctly disco vibe of “Everyone Gets Everything They Really Want”. It does seem like the band have put some considerable thought into the precise track listing of the album, saving the bulk of the experimentation for the second half of the run-time so that it sets up the band’s identity, then gradually broadens its scope.
Sadly, GTO’s debut tour had to be canceled at the eleventh hour, following Brent’s injury in a motorcycle accident. With so many diaries to align, the band are still yet to head out onto the road together. We can only hope that, at some point in the not too distant future, they can make it work, as Broken Lines is an album of songs that feel like they were written for the stage.
Track to check out: “Blood Moon”
– Simon Clark