Absorbing influences from metal, prog, sludge, punk, jazz, psychedelia and Southern rock, Mastodon have acquired a reputation as one of modern metal’s most forward-thinking, idiosyncratic and creatively restless bands across their sixteen year career. Sublimely gifted musicians, Bill Kelliher, Brent Hinds, Troy Sanders and Brann Dailor have always understood that jaw-dropping instrumental virtuosity counts for little without being harnessed in actual songs: here are their ten finest.
10) Trainwreck (from Remission, 2002)
According to Bill Kelliher, the centre-piece of the band’s debut album acquired its title when a friend likened the seven minute song to the image of a train leaving the tracks and exploding: that’ll be why its introduced by ambient railway station noise. Building from delicate arpeggios and tasteful prog rock noodling into dense, technical riffing, there’s more than a hint of Neurosis’ influence here – not least in the bleak chorus (‘All questions exhaust me’) – and it’s an absorbing listen throughout.
9) Creature Lives (from The Hunter, 2011)
Composed and sung by Brann Dailor, the trippy, B-movie-inspired Creature Lives is closer in sound and aesthetic to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd than any traditional metal touchstone, and, much to the drummer’s glee, it’s simultaneously one of the most divisive songs in Mastodon’s catalogue, and yet one of the emotional highpoints of their live shows.
8) Pendulous Skin (from Blood Mountain, 2006)
Brent Hinds wasn’t being entirely serious last year when he told an interviewer “I fucking hate heavy metal”, but much like Metallica, Mastodon have always enjoyed toying with preconceptions and deliberately subverting metalheads’ expectations. The woozy, atmospheric 12-string guitar enhanced psych-prog ballad which closes the band’s major label debut features a transcendent Hinds solo reminiscent of Dave Gilmour at his most fluid and lyrical, plus a piss-take message from QOTSA mainman (and Mastodon fan) Josh Homme for those who keep listening after the track’s conclusion.
7) Mother Puncher (from Remission, 2002)
Riffs. Riffs, Riffs. Tightly-wound in comparison to the free-wheeling progressive rock epics they would come to embrace in later years, this absolute beast of a track perfectly showcases the early Mastodon sound – all shape-shaping metallic riffs and dynamic twists and turns, underpinned by Brann Dailor’s incredible drum patterns. The title, incidentally, is one of the few lasting contributions made to the band by short-lived former vocalist Eric Saner, who jokingly claimed that the song’s aggressive thrusts made him want to deck his dear mom.
6) Aqua Dementia (from Levianthan, 2004)
When Mastodon first listened to the guest vocals Neurosis man Scott Kelly laid down for this compellingly apocalyptic cut from Leviathan, Brann Dailor admits that he got teary-eyed at how “awesome” the song sounded. The influence of band favourites Thin Lizzy and The Fucking Champs can be detected in the gnarled opening riffs, but as with the album as a whole, this was Mastodon laying a new set of foundations for 21st century metal.
- The Top 10 Best Metallica Songs Of The 90s
- The Top 10 Best Album Opening Songs Ever
- Bloodstock 2016: Patchwatch photo gallery
- Slayer's Kerry King reveals band's 'stupid' warm-up routine
5) The Motherload (from Once More ‘Round The Sun, 2014)
The tragic elitists who consider it their role in life to police the careers of successful musicians would consider this anthemic highlight of Mastodon’s sixth album further evidence of the Atlantan quartet ‘selling out’ since their move to a major label. As if Mastodon give a fuck for such considerations. Bill Kelliher admits that when he first played the song’s central riff to Brann Dailor the drummer’s initial tentative response was ‘It sounds kinda happy: are we a happy band?’ but the optimism and positivity shining through in the ‘This time, things will work out just fine’ chorus makes this one of the band’s most irresistible offerings.
4) Hearts Alive (from Leviathan, 2004)
If any one single track on Leviathan earned Mastodon a reputation as ‘the new Metallica’ it’s this, a majestic 13 minute prog-metal epic with echoes of The Call Of Ktulu. Early proof that Mastodon were more than just riff-monsters, it’s a masterpiece of dynamics, structure and pacing, ebbing and surging like with its own riveting tale from topographic oceans.
3) The Czar (from Crack The Skye, 2009)
The magnificent heart of Metal Hammer’s Best Album of 2009, this four part epic (subtitled I. Usurper II. Escape III. Martyr IV. Spiral) is arguably Mastodon’s finest progressive rock journey. It’s a complex, fantastical tale – taking in astral projection, and a plot to assassinate ‘The Mad Monk’ Rasputin in Tsarist Russia – but with a foothold in reality: the line ‘I see your face in constellations’ refers to the night Brann Dailor attempted to get into his sister Skye’s freshly covered grave while high on LSD, only stopping when he saw her face in the sky.
2) Blood And Thunder (from Leviathan, 2004)
With Clutch frontman Neil Fallon supplying the voice of obsessive whale hunter Captain Ahab, the opening track of Mastodon’s Moby Dick-themed concept album instantly sinks its hooks into the listener, with a gloriously insistent riff and a chorus – ‘White Whale! Holy Grail!’ – that couldn’t be more immediate. Brann Dailor describes the song as “the ivory leg [Leviathan] stood on” and it’s an enthralling introduction to what might just might be the finest metal album of the century to date.
1) March Of The Fire Ants (from Remission, 2002)
An extraordinary leap forward from 2001’s Lifeblood EP, the second track on Remission signalled the arrival of a major new talent in the heavy music world. With a stunning, cyclical, earworm intro (and outro) riff, a beautifully harmonised mid-section, jaw-dropping drums fills from Brann Dailor and Troy Sanders bellowing over the top like a vengeful god, upon its release, Mastodon’s first single sounded like the future of heavy metal: in 2016, it still does.