The history of rock music is steeped in elaborate, narrative-driven concept albums. Some are bangers—think of Iron Maiden’s career high-point Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son or Hüsker Dü’s iconoclastic Zen Arcade. However, as the album era gradually recedes into the annals of history, these sorts of grand, linear collections of music feel increasingly quaint. Today, the term “concept album” refers more to a body of songs that explore a cohesive mood or recurring ideas (think of much of Kendrick Lamar’s discography) instead of a direct narrative driven by plot and character development.
However, metal classicists Mastodon have built a career on pursuing their own path, regardless of trends. The Georgia band have crafted four narrative-driven albums, the latest being 2017’s undercooked but fun Emperor Of Sand. Their three most heralded albums—2004’s Leviathan, 2006’s Blood Mountain and 2009’s Crack The Skye—each fuse a fragmented but engrossing narrative with the band’s signature fusion of prog metal, sludge metal and classic rock. (Though the last few years have seen them considerably soften that approach.)
Blood Mountain is, to this writer’s ears, Mastodon’s definitive masterpiece. Beyond being the most perfect fusion of everything the band are musically capable of—stacked with equal amounts of technical shredding, accessible melodies and psychedelic textures—it also possesses one of rock music’s most electrifying narrative conceits. To first give some quick but significant background on the album’s conceptual approach, Mastodon’s first four full-lengths all represent classical elements. The quartet’s explosive debut Remission is fire, its Moby Dick-inspired follow-up Leviathan is water and Blood Mountain’s epic, trippy predecessor Crack The Skye is aether.
Blood Mountain’s symbolic element is earth, which is realized both via a narrative and musical approach that’s mountainous in scope but as light on its feet as a deer darting through a forest. While Mastodon’s lauded 2004 epic Leviathan was a killer album full of rampaging riffs, it nonetheless doesn’t quite stick its conceptual landing. Perhaps this is due to the weight of the source material, but when experienced as a whole album, Leviathan never quite grips in terms of narrative or emotion, despite boasting a panoply of undeniably awesome songs.
In the build-up to Blood Mountain’s release drummer Brann Dailor correctly described the album as “just better” than its predecessors. A decisive factor for why it pips Leviathan and even the ultra-conceptual Crack The Skye to the title of Mastodon’s finest hour is its gripping and vividly-realized story. The plot follows an archetypal hero’s journey, inspired by Joseph Campbell’s formative text on the subject The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It’s not wholly spelled-out and requires a little bit of piecing together, but the twelve-track lyrical story centers around, to quote Dailor, “climbing up a mountain and the different things that can happen to you when you’re stranded on a mountain, in the woods and you’re lost”.
This is just the bare bones of Blood Mountain’s epic tale. Among other delights, the story encompasses crystal skulls, strange cryptids, hallucinatory visions and an apocalyptic climax. Building on the loose framework that the band members have themselves outlined, the internet is littered with similar interpretations of how the narrative progresses. The following run-through combines them all, along with some interpretations from this writer, who has spent way too much time living in Blood Mountain-land. The combination of mythological and elemental imagery is firmly lodged in my brain, flittering around my imagination whenever I hike a mountain or in a forest.
Blood Mountain opens in media res. The immediate barrage of thrashy riffs in “The Wolf is Loose” are frantic and urgent. The track moves like the album’s central hero character who, after being cursed by the gods, is reluctantly sent on a quest to cure their lycanthropic affliction. They set off to find the “Crystal Skull” which possess them and compels them to ascend the titular mountain. “Crystal Skull” is one of the album’s better known tracks, one of the group’s live staples. It continues the opener’s hurtling, visceral pace and offers the first glimpse of guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher’s intricate dual guitar shredding.
The narrative only reaches the mountain on third track “Sleeping Giant.” Our central character watches its volcanic peak erupt before it then becomes a “deep, calm wilderness.” Like this condensing of narrative time, “Sleeping Giant” slows the pace of Blood Mountain down to a monolithic, swaggering rumble. It’s a brilliant piece of songwriting, one that’s as bombastic as a mountain exploding but as sinewy as the roots that burrow in its slopes. Unexpectedly, Pitchfork included “Sleeping Giant” in their 2008 list of the 500 greatest songs released between 1977 to 2006—a testament to the crossover appeal that Mastodon were riding at the time of the Blood Mountain’s release.
While “Sleeping Giant” ultimately slows to a crawl, subsequent track “Capillarian Crest” starts at a barrelling clip. The winding guitars and equally-technical drumming are relentlessly propulsive, hurtling forward with manic precision. It mirrors the lead character, who is now ascending the mountain while the skull is fighting for control of their heart—hence the capillary-referencing title. This track doesn’t really propel the story forward, but highlights a series of uber-fun shred sections. Mastodon were once masters of these flourishes, which they embedded within compelling, lively songs that meant the flair never felt tiresome.
In “Circle Of Cysquatch” the hero encounters “a race of one-eyed beings” who, atop a drop-A tuned groove ominously warn to “beware the birchmen.” Though this is the point in the album where the narrative starts to become especially vivid, it’s interjected by the gleefully-silly “Bladecatcher.” A chaotic, instrumental shred-a-thon rife with scrambled voices and air guitar-ready harmonies, it’s completely over the top and mostly adjacent to the narrative. There’s an argument to be made that its a representation of the hero’s scrambled headspace, but it’s just an exercise in outlandish musicianship, one that recalls Melt-Banana as much as it does Thin Lizzy.
Dragging us back to reality somewhat is Blood Mountain’s most well-known track. “Colony of Birchmen”’s title is a reference to “The Colony of Slippermen”—a cut from Genesis’ conceptual epic The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, which is one of Brann Dailor’s favorite albums. It’s propulsively-structured, super accessible (check out Brent Hinds’ soaring “my heart’s gone away” vocals) and bursts at the seams with muscular riffs. At this point in the narrative, the character has encountered the titular half-tree monsters and has transformed back into a werewolf in order to violently fend them off. God damn, this story is so badass.
From here on, Blood Mountain starts to loosen up a little. In “Hunters Of The Sky,” our hero is high up in the mountain’s forests, “evading sharks from the sky.” This eighth track flicks between breathless drop–A riffs and looser, doom-leaden explorations. As ever, Mastodon shifts through these gears with fine-tuned precision. Follow-up “Hand Of Stone” utilizes odd structuring and rapid Iron Maiden-esque dual guitars that are emblematic of the main character’s latest freak out, this time a result of consuming a “poison rose” that causes psychedelic hallucinations.
Continuing down this trippy route is Blood Mountain’s final three tracks, which ascend to new heights of spacey wonder. “This Mortal Soil” opens with washes of phaser-strewn chords and finds our hero high up the mountain, still under the rose’s influence. They receive a vision that implies apocalyptic events will soon follow. “This Mortal Soil”’s patient grooves and stoned lyrics about “the atmosphere that floats above the earth is corrupt for man” are irresistible, once again finding the right balance between grin-inducing technicality and dynamic songwriting.
We’ve now reached Blood Mountain’s finale. “Siberian Divide” finds the central character nearing the peak, battered by snow and succumbing to frostbite. The now “shining skull” triggers cataclysmic events, including “solar storms” and “ice fields”. Featuring chiming guitars that actually feel like a blinding snowstorm, “Siberian Divide” culminates in some brutal riffs and banshee-like guest vocals from The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala. This is the album’s heavy denouement, though it never strains to impress with its grandeur. No track on Blood Mountain exceeds five and a half minutes, a wise choice that ensures that even the slower tracks maintain momentum and drive.
By the time closer “Pendulous Skin”’s serene acoustic guitars have transformed into a restrained psych rock haze, we’re floating away like our beleaguered hero, who is now “weightless” and “sailing away” from the mountain towards the afterlife. The journey has been violent, awe-inspiring, trippy and a relentless thrill. Immersing yourself in its journey as well as picking out the connections to Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey gives layers of depth to Blood Mountain—an album that will leave you energized, emotionally-satisfied and on the lookout for birchmen on your next mountain hike.
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