Fully mammoth

Atlanta's Mastodon expands its heavy sound into a Leviathan

Brann Dailor is on the road again, still. The drummer and his bandmates in Atlanta's mighty quartet Mastodon are traveling from Milwaukee, Wis., to Des Moines, Iowa, opening for Fear Factory, a tour that started in July and has led the band up the East Coast and into the heartland. Dailor is stuffed into a van with four "dudes who smell bad" and all their equipment. One of the guys is nodding out, his mouth open.

"I feel like Napoleon Dynamite right now," says Dailor via cell phone, referring to the titular alienated character of director Jared Hess' summer Idaho-set coming-of-age comedy. Dailor is alluding less to feeling like an awkward, disaffected teenager than that rootless haze of being a stranger in the strange land of the American Midwest, his days marked by scenery passing that all looks the same to arrive at yet another club.

"We've pretty much been on the road for the better part of four years," continues Dailor. "We're all from the school of [believing] the best forum for heavy metal music is the live show. I guess you could say we've maintained a strong work ethic."

That's a characteristic understatement from a guy who in the course of a half-hour conversation reveals himself to be a man with a virtually endless supply of deadpan wit and sincere modesty, cracking jokes about the group's sardine-packed living conditions one moment and looking for the right way to explain Mastodon's spine-rattling sound the next. He speaks like just another guy in some band, but the humor and humility mix might mask that butterfly dyspepsia of anticipation and apprehension for the months ahead.

This Fear Factor tour has led the group — Dailor, guitarists Brent Hines and Bill Kelliher, and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders — into some of the larger American venues it's played. And the stakes are only going to get higher after its new album, Leviathan, comes out Aug. 31, and the band heads for Europe to open for Slayer and Slipknot.

"Europe this time is going to be crazy," says Dailor. "Stadiums and stuff, it's going to be, like, 'Whoa.' We played a couple of [European] festivals, but I don't know, this is just going to be huge. We're going to be, like, 'Hi, we're a bar band.' We'll have to figure out something to do."

When Mastodon returns to the States, Slayer is taking it around the country with Killswitch Engage — not a bad year-end for a group that formed in 2000 and started playing shows with barely a handful of songs to its credit. And just looking at its relatively rapid rise, Mastodon may be the next underground heavy act to enter metal's mainstream, and it'd be an ascent hard earned and wholly deserved. Mastodon quite simply is the only beast of its kind in metal's zoo right now.

It's not just the Black Flag/early-Metallica touring sprees, though the group's volatile live shows have served as its best word-of-mouth buzz when it started up in 2000. Lots of bands believe in bringing the rock to the people, even though Mastodon's marathons have caused some peculiar effects. ("We used to think of Baltimore as our hometown," says Dailor, referring to a city the band had played eight times in one year. "We played there so much, we're like, 'We live here now, right? Ah, shit, we live in Atlanta. I forgot.'")

And it's just not Dailor's beguiling demeanor, though being a band unafraid of ideas hasn't hurt. Stoned Brits and '80s hair-framing guys in spandex perpetuated the myth of the lobotomized rocker, but contemporary metal, especially from the likes of Mastodon and its labelmates at Relapse Records, doesn't come from dim bulbs. The group's 2002 debut, Remission, contained 11 undeniably smoking, twinned-guitar burns, but it was also a genuinely moving and occasionally lyrical affair. On "March of the Fire Ants," a track that MTV2's Headbanger's Ball finally got hip to last year, Sanders growls the compact wordplay dart, "Bone grave/Bone engraved/Stone Grave/Stone engraved." And Leviathan is a 10-song cycle vaguely inspired by that manly of manly texts, Moby Dick.

No, what makes Mastodon such a singular force is its pluralistic songwriting, a wide swath of influences and tastes colliding into one. "I think you can tell from both our albums, they're pretty eclectic sounding and a little bit diverse," says Dailor. "And I think that just comes from the fact that we all have a hand in the writing. There are some albums that you hear from bands where it's obviously one guy that writes everything there. That's not the case with us. I think it's easy to tell that there's a few cooks in the kitchen."

Mastodon's strange, tenacious spell is conjured through this dynamic, and it's not merely a case of jamming and everybody finding their own part. It's a more fluid affair, where, say, a guitarist can suggest a drum part or vice-versa. "I write some stuff, help out with the riffage," says Dailor. "I can't really play guitar but I can hum pretty well. So I just kind of basically hum some riffs, and they play it and tweak it to their liking, make it more interesting on guitar. I rely on them to take it to the next level of guitar genius.

"There's no tried and true method we take," continues Dailor. "There's a science to it, but it's an unspoken science since we've all been writing songs for so long. It's become second nature."

Both Remission and Leviathan are complex and multihued albums, and not in purely technical ways. Leviathan undoubtedly has its share of metal complexity — the tempo shifts and changes packed into "I am Ahab" date-stamp Mastodon as members of the Dillinger Escape Plan generation, fusing Discharge and Napalm Death feral power to John Zorn and prog — but it's never for the sake of muscularity alone. The tomahawk hammering drums and cubist guitar runs in "Ahab" alternately propel the chugging melody forward and impede its motion, creating an internal tension to the song.

And Mastodon doesn't have but the one gear, always set to shred. "Seabeast" starts out with an almost angelic guitar line intertwined in a cascading lead before fusing into the verses' overdrive thrust. Elsewhere, such propulsion becomes a contrapuntal element. The guitars buzzing in the background of "Island" sketch a feedback fuzzy skeleton through the song, with the bass, drums, and vocals carving and shaping the melody through the tumult.

Such a songwriting range makes Leviathan a metal album of equal measure rich nuance, non-Hobbit headiness and ass kick — a rare feat. But the band can only pull that off when it can find the time to write, and constantly touring makes that difficult.

"We can't write albums on tour because for us, at the level that we're at, that's impossible," says Dailor. "I've seen bands at bigger levels who can do that because the venues are massive, you can get there early, you've got a crew that sets your gear up, and you can go up in your backstage room and work on stuff. But the level that we're at, we're playing dive bars, kind of, but we don't usually get a dressing room, the club owners are opening the clubs at 7 o'clock or 6 o'clock, and we get in and can just barely squeeze in a sound check. And then it's time to hurry up and wait to play the show. We don't have a tour bus, we have a van that we drive and we're squeezed in here with all of our equipment. There's no room for acoustic guitars and 'Kumbaya' sing-alongs.

"It's crazy, sometimes it's hell. The tail wags the dog a bit," continues Dailor. "We're not in control of our lives. We kind of like to spend some time at our homes a bit. I don't know. We don't really get to see Atlanta that much."

In fact, Dailor has been away from home for so long — Mastodon has played Atlanta but once this year — that he has a hard time remembering if Atlanta, his band's birthplace, is a "metal" town.

"Is there a lot of metal in Atlanta?" Dailor asks himself. "You just got to look for it, I guess. I hear it all the time at the Black Box, where we practice, but I don't see a lot of the bands playing out too much or doing much touring. I don't know, there's a lot of indie rock and rock 'n' roll, Atlanta's a very rock 'n' roll town. That's the impression that I got when I moved there, that it was very rock 'n' roll. Lots of heavy drinkers who just like to drink PBR, the bars [were open] till four in the morning [prior to a January 2004 law change], so" — adopting a fratboy lilt — "it's a party town. So, you know, that breeds metal."