Move Every Mountain

B-Sides traces Mastodon's surprise world domination from Blood Mountain to easy street.

Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher sounds remarkably unaffected for a man whose musical career has, in just five months, gone from mildly successful to completely bananas. Calling from his Atlanta home on the eve of the band's winter headlining tour with Converge and Priestess, Kelliher doesn't seem fazed that, since releasing its Warner Brothers debut, Blood Mountain, in September, Mastodon has rocked Conan O'Brien's stage, been animated for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie, landed on seemingly every major music publication's year-end poll and been nominated for "Best Metal Performance" in this year's Grammy Awards. No — right now, he's got bigger issues to contend with.

"Hang on a second," Kelliher interjects mid-conversation, as another, higher voice becomes audible in the background. A pause, and then: "Sorry about that — we've got people coming over tonight, and my wife just reminded me that I forgot to buy beer. What was the question again?"

Since September at least, the question has been: How far into popular culture can Mastodon — Kelliher, drummer Brann Dailor, guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders — push itself? Much like its recent tourmates and fellow Grammy nominees Tool, Slayer and Lamb of God, Mastodon has entered the mainstream untainted, forcing listeners to bend to suit its music, and not vice versa. In fact, contrast Blood Mountain with Mastodon's previous indie full-lengths for Relapse Records (2002's dense, angular Remission and the brawnier, epic-length follow-up, Leviathan), and you could posit that Mastodon has just gotten more challenging since moving to the majors.

"I've had kids come up to me and say, 'Wow, thank you so much; I had lost all hope in metal until I heard you,'" Kelliher says. "Meanwhile, I'm like, 'Come on,' but I can appreciate what they're saying. It's hard to pinpoint — we're doing some pretty diverse stuff, and there's a small group of kids out there who are getting into it. And it's growing; you can turn on the radio and listen to that crap, or you can dig a little deeper and find bands like Mastodon, Isis, Converge, High on Fire, the Mars Volta, Tool — whatever you're into."

Although the scale's changed somewhat, Mastodon has asked listeners to dig deeply from day one. Following an inconsistent 2001 EP, the band hit its stride via Remission, achieving a grand synthesis of Black Sabbath-style proto-metal and noisy, muscular post-metal that, ironically, would become a quality barometer for metal, period, in the coming years. And with 2004's Leviathan, Mastodon officially cracked the underground's surface, landing "album of the year" status in four major rock magazines, lending a single to multiple video games and eventually reaching the 100,000-plus sales mark: quite a feat for an elaborate concept album that uses Herman Melville's Moby Dick as a power-struggle metaphor.

"Being immersed in this band for so long, it's gotten hard to see the forest for the trees," Kelliher says. "I'd have people go, 'Man, I see you guys everywhere,' and I'm like, 'Really? I don't.'" He laughs. "But I'm also not someone who goes to the newsstand every month to look up my favorite bands. I don't have time — I've got two kids and a wife here at home, and when I'm on the road, it's all business. Everything's getting to a bigger level, but I don't know; I still feel like the same person, the same band. We're just becoming a little more accessible."

Of course, being accessible doesn't mean being, you know, "accessible." While Remission and Leviathan were weird in their own right, Blood Mountain makes both sound like pop music by comparison. Colossal and utterly defiant, the album manages at once to draw out Mastodon's inherent melodicism ("The Wolf Is Loose," "Crystal Skull") and — thanks to vocoders, lysergic guitar licks, Dailor's impossibly athletic percussive skills, and guests both surprising (Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme) and fitting (Neurosis' Scott Kelly and two-eighths of the Mars Volta) — launch the band far into left field. And people are buying it.

"The first week of sales [for Blood Mountain] was, like, 25,000 records, which was pretty crazy," Kelliher says. (The album's since moved past the 76,000 mark.) "I mean, two years after we'd released it, Leviathan was just topping 90,000, and I was like, 'Good God, 25,000 in one week?" He laughs. "If we could do that every week, it'd be awesome."

While its overriding concept, like that of Leviathan, uses mountains and monsters to symbolize struggle, Blood Mountain has found the band inching further toward easy street: Rolling Stone named the album's "Capillarian Crest" No. 27 in its "Top 100 songs of 2006," and taste-making indie-rock Web sites such as Pitchfork have ranked it among 2006's best. Perhaps most shocking to Kelliher, however, is the Grammy nod for "Colony of Birchmen" — even if his surprise comes with typical understatement.

"I've watched the Grammys before — they seem kind of boring, honestly, and never in a million years did I think we'd go, let alone be nominated. Now we're all gonna go, bring our wives onto the infamous red carpet. I'm pretty psyched about it, but I don't take it too seriously. In the end, a little statue is all it is." — Aaron Burgess

7 p.m. Saturday, February 3. Pop's, 1403 Mississippi Avenue, Sauget, Illinois.
$15 in advance, $17 at the door. 618-274-6720.

 
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