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How Mastodon Helped Lead a 21st Century Metal Revival

on April 06, 2017, 12:00pm

Last Friday, Mastodon released Empire of Sand, and Queens-esque single “Show Yourself” notwithstanding, it feels like their more intricate records of the past. Being around for over a decade feels like you’ve been around forever, and we should acknowledge the metal climate from which they came. Mastodon’s rise coincided with the return of metal in the mid-’00s, when new bands weren’t just cropping up; people actually started paying attention to them again. It was still underground music, and in a lot of ways it still is, but it no longer felt like a relic. Metal felt contemporary once more and became part of the overall music fabric in a way that it wasn’t post-1991.

Nothing arises from a vacuum, but metal’s revival almost seemed as though it came out of nowhere. In the early 2000s, metal’s biggest names, in the mainstream and underground, were not doing well. Metallica’s reputation, already in free fall from abandoning their thrash metal roots with Load and Reload, took a nosedive from their legal battle against Napster. The band that made  …And Justice for All suddenly became The Man, and James Hetfield’s stint in rehab didn’t help matters. Pantera had carried metal in the mainstream throughout the 1990s but had imploded following a ginormous rift between Phil Anselmo and the rest of the band. Dave Mustaine injured his left hand so severely in 2002 that it almost looked like he would never be able to play guitar again, and Megadeth was put to rest for a couple years after that. Death’s Chuck Schuldiner passed away in 2001 from pneumonia following treatment of brain cancer, thus ending the band after which death metal was named. There was metal on the radio and TV, but it was nu metal, and old-school metalheads and underground fanatics were not on board with it. There was nothing less metal than a backwards red Yankees cap. Roadrunner Records was no longer associated with classic death metal bands like Obituary and Deicide; they were making too much money launching the careers of Nickelback and Slipknot.

Metal never died, but it was due for a revival.

The “return of metal” wasn’t confined to one style, and that’s what was really beautiful about it. Mastodon represented the progressive wing, the metal complement to the rising profile of The Mars Volta. Doom metal also saw a boom — its closeness to the original sound of Black Sabbath made it an easier sell for the uninitiated. Killswitch Engage and Shadows Fall were Massachusetts kids who merged hardcore with the melodic death metal of At the Gates. Thrash metal, specifically the punk-leaning crossover variety, came back following the success of Municipal Waste, Ed Repka covers, bullet belts and all. There was djent, which bastardized Meshuggah’s signature alien groove into hookless fodder. (Meshuggah themselves are still as good as ever and benefitted from their watered-down imitators’ rise.) And who could forget “post-metal,” the fusion of post-rock and metal that wasn’t really post-anything?

This era led to a bounty of innovation that still resonates today. Torche found a sweet spot between the Beach Boys and Eyehategod, cranking out metal that was as poppy and sunny as it was sludgy. Mastodon’s Leviathan and Blood Mountain were the peaks of their omnivorous approach to prog and metal. Though Matt Pike is more infamous in Sleep, especially their hour-plus opus, Dopesmoker, he really found his voice in High on Fire, barreling through riffs with Motorhead-like recklessness and ’80s high-minded glory. All of these were “metal,” but none of them sounded like each other. It became a broader spectrum than ever. Veterans found success, too: Drone metal innovators Earth reinvented themselves into country drone and found a new, more open-minded audience. Cult Georgia metallers Harvey Milk’s irreverence for seriousness or boundaries also gained more traction in the mid-’00s. Following the dissolution of Godflesh, Justin Broadrick found beauty in crushing shoegaze metal with Jesu. By helping metal reinvent itself, it became stronger than ever.

During this time, metal brought in some strange bedfellows. Indie rockers and punks, in particular, found it as an alternative outlet. The Sword, one of the most popular metal bands of recent times, traces its roots back to an Austin indie band, Those Peabodys. David Pajo, best known for his work in Slint and Tortoise, had a band called Dead Child, whose originality can be summed up in their name. Mastodon released a split with Feist — Feist! Big Business was founded by former members of Karp and Murder City Devils, both punk veterans that were mostly unknown to metal audiences. Ryan Adams is somewhat of a mainstream champion of metal, having been photographed in Kreator, Power Trip, Saint Vitus, and Emperor shirts. In a New York Times interview from October 2008, he praises Xasthur, a Southern California black metal artist whose solitude is central to his work and persona, alongside Metallica and Mariah Carey: “When I close my eyes and listen, I think of a heartbroken demon sitting beside these ashes in hell and really missing his girlfriend.” It’s doubtful that Scott Conner would want his work viewed that way; Hydra Head, his label at the time, probably welcomed the endorsement nonetheless.

One interesting bedfellow was accused of killing metal in 1991, if you believe the tired narrative brought on by out-of-work Sunset Strip types. Dave Grohl, like Adams, makes music that doesn’t suggest he’s a huge metalhead. Unlike Adams, Grohl actually got some of his heroes together for a project: Probot. He got to fulfill his teenage wishes of jamming with metal legends like Lemmy, Celtic Frost’s Tom G. Warrior, Venom’s Cronos, and the King of Kings, King Diamond, among others. Can you believe that ex-Trouble singer and doom journeyman Scott “Wino” Weinrich once jammed on the same stage as TRL for a performance of Probot’s “My Tortured” on the revived Headbangers Ball on MTV2? Probot also helped launch Southern Lord Records, run by Greg Anderson of Sunn O))), which is still an influential label today. Grohl didn’t need to atone for shit.

This era can’t be discussed without discussing another partner that shaped it: Scion. Yes, the car company. It glommed onto metal like it did to hip-hop and dance music to reach a different audience, and for a while, it was willing to give metal some capital. They released EPs for DC grinders Magrudergrind, North Carolina crossover OGs Corrosion of Conformity, progressive black metallers Enslaved, and New York death metal pioneers Immolation. Scion Rock Fest, held from 2009 to 2014, brought an eclectic assortment of modern metal acts to car-driven cities like Columbus, Atlanta, and Memphis. To be brief, they did their homework. Reactions were mixed: Metalheads are very fickle towards commercialism. After all, they got burned by MTV once, and they didn’t want to let it happen again. (They kind of had a point: In videos of Scion performances, band logos on shirts were often blurred out. That was silly.) Bands saw Scion’s budgets as a way to get compensated for work they’d normally have to squabble with promoters and labels for. And Scion pulled out of doing this stuff a couple years ago. It was a fun ride while it lasted.

All of these unexpected connections serve a broader point about why metal’s revival over a decade ago is important: It engaged with the culture at large. Metal doesn’t need to compromise its sound; it also needs to expand outside its own fan base. Some of us are getting older, others more cynical, others both. That isn’t gonna keep metal healthy. Yeah, not everyone’s gonna get it, and that’s part of the appeal. But people deserve a chance to hear this stuff, because it’s better (and louder) than everything else.

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