It’s not often that an album completely lives up to its title. In late August 2004, American sludge metal quartet Mastodon released their second full length album, Leviathan. It was a collection of lumbering, titanic riffs that more than lived up to its biblical namesake. Their first true concept album, focused on the element of water and based loosely on Herman Melville’s 1851 sea shanty Moby Dick, it was heralded as the first (and arguably only) album in the subgenre of ‘whalecore’.
To many fans, this is the epitome of Mastodon’s early sound. Crushing, dextrous guitar lines and Brann Dailor’s flexible, intuitive drumming give way to sub-prog passages with texture and depth. Opener ‘Blood And Thunder‘ immediately drags you in with a squall of high tempo guitars and snare drum abuse. The vocal refrain of ‘White whale/Holy grail’ begs to be screamed along to, and the widdly guitar pause adds a brilliant dynamic shift.
Second track ‘I Am Ahab’ is a somewhat slowed down affair, winding through various progressions and passages before settling on an almost call and response vocal and guitar medley. Troy Sanders’s vocals are smoky and drawn out, and he was arguably the most accomplished/consistent vocalist at this point in the band’s history. ‘Seabeast’ is a different kettle of fish entirely. An angular, moody intro sets off a spiralling, wailing siren of a guitar which builds tension into yet another buzzsaw riff. Dailor really shows off his dexterity and flexibility here, his jazz-influenced fills dragging things along at a sludgy pace, before the big, chugging outro sees things off.
‘Island‘ begins messily, almost fractured, with an elemental energy. Although the instruments don’t seem like they should mesh, they absolutely do, and the track is an absolute monster, the ending slowly sucking you deeper into the ocean depths. Who would have thought a song that’s basically a tourist guide to Iceland could be so intense? A pummelling drum cascade kicks off ‘Iron Tusk’, which is arguably the sludgiest offering here. A mean, chugging orgy of riffs and blistering kick-drum work that has another of those irresistible vocal refrains in ‘Culture/Vulture’. Things seem fairly steady until the boys throw yet another curveball, with the dissonant, jarring breakdown in the middle eight.
‘Megalodon’ showcases guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher’s innate riffing skills, before morphing into something with a hardcore edge to it, all tempo and angular guitar work, before mutating once again into a balls out thrash jam. Hind’s vocals are rabid and intense throughout. ‘Naked Burn’ kicks in with a frantic, dizzying riff and superb tension building before locking into a deep groove and a wall of palm muting. Hind’s cleans are not as good as his screeches, but there’s an honesty to them that draws you in further. ‘Aqua Dementia’ lives up to it’s name sake, a clash of moody, scuzzy bass and wandering guitar, with Hind’s acidic vocals doing battle with the dual personality of Nerurosis’ Scott Kelly’s caustic roar. The closing moments of the track are some of the best on the record, extending upwards and in every direction, spurred on by Kelly’s unearthly wail. This is Mastodon at their most crushing but also their most uplifting. The tiny, almost unnoticeable single strum as the song fades out into cymbal shimmer is a fantastic nuance.
The sound of crashing waves bleeds into the album’s focal point, the 15 minute plus behemoth that is ‘Hearts Alive’. Meandering, jangling guitars and shifting bass are backed by the constantly restless drums. Things strip back into a burly riff that will reappear throughout, and yet again there is a deep, coruscating groove at the heart of it all. Sanders’s bass work is most prominent here, and the song twists and turns, proving that the Georgian’s are at home with the progressive and the dynamic as much as the crushing. Things move into a higher gear around the 7:10 mark, rolling along in a torrent of drum fills, cymbal rolls and duelling riffs. There’s a strange air of positivity and almost calm in this middle section, before things shift once more into some big, big chords and some well used space before Hinds lets rip with a furious, blistering solo that is probably still reverberating through the cosmos. Locking the end of the track down with a heavier, chugging repeat of an earlier theme, Mastodon make playing a quarter hour opus seem like a breeze.
The oddball, acoustic end piece of ‘Joseph Merrick’ is breathy and delicate, but no less riff heavy. It is moody, serene and intelligently written, and perhaps a welcome respite from the intensity that came before it.
Ten years on, and Mastodon have evolved. They continue to play intelligent, well written tunes the way that they want to play them. 2009’s Crack The Skye is widely thought to be their best album, and while there’s no disputing that their psych-prog quest was transcendent, Leviathan stands toe to toe with it in terms of capturing what the quartet can, and do, do best. Ten years on, and it is still vital listening, perhaps still untouched by contemporary artists and releases. It may be part of the fossil record, but the Leviathan lives on.