Sunday, January 11, 2009

Criminally Slept On: "Remission"

This wasn't originally going to be the record I would inaugurate this series with (metal isn't usually very interesting to write about), but I've already written this for, so fuck it.
Despite a lot of mainstream music outlets giving this album its proper due, there's definitely seems to be a lot of uninformed criticism of this record, especially in the aftermath of the band becoming popular years later. Detractors from the record, and to a further extent, the band fall into two camps; those who admittedly don't get the band and those who malign the band but, keeping in line with having bad taste, posit genuinely overrated bands like Opeth or Meshuggah as superior alternatives.

A shame because, as Mastodon continues on this seems to be the most overlooked and under-appreciated album in their catalog, the opening salvo of a streak that would produce two classic modern metal albums.

The band itself has always been odd, composed of members who had respectively flirted with tech metal, hardcore, grind and hard rock, leaving the band and their common influences into a sludge-y beast that congealed into a mix of 70's rock, 80's metal, the oddly unsettling chorus-drenched guitar balladry of 80’s Metallica, and Neurosis.

Tuned to Drop-A on occasion like the aforementioned sludge influence, the band was never heavier than on this record, though their rock influence, talked up in early Relapse press releases, is prominent in the songwriting, musical hooks, over-driven and noisy Marshall amp sound, and abundant Thin Lizzy-affected leads. "3:30"-"3:46" during "Ol'e Nessie" alone demonstrates some of the quirkiness that made Mastodon stand out in a stale genre burgeoning with metalcore clones, half-baked prog, past-its-prime tech death and hordes of uninteresting and over-produced European bands.

It's an extreme metal record that rocks, something that was rare and oft-ignored until metalcore bands like Avenged Sevenfold would turn that into a successful sales gimmick. The majority of that has to do with its rhythm.

The key to all music is rhythm; it's what differentiates something like The Violent Femmes' "Add It Up" from someone just blandly strumming a B power chord at an open mic. The core of a good riff is never the notes, it's its rhythm. Things like jazz and AC/DC always had a preternatural ability to determine where spaces and rests should go, why you shouldn't rush a phrase, why tremolo picking some C minor scale retread over blastbeats doesn't necessitate good music. Mastodon, from here until "Blood Mountain", understood that concept very well.

There's audible development in song structure, riffs change frequently and keep dynamic (although the band claims this is due to their "musical ADD") lending power to the longer songs which frequently contain dramatic bridge sections or riff refrains, which are frequently the only time Brann Dailor plays with the riffs as a standard drummer would, instead of playing "lead drums" against them. Though an aspect of the record that is criticized, it works because Dailor's actually a very good drummer, and someone who manages to tastefully overplay. This doesn't detract from the songs themselves because the band seemed to be quite aware of this and would occasionally surrender control of the dynamic and shift of the music to Brann as his drumming would take charge with the guitars and bass sometimes being static as he would appear to solo mid-song.

The guitars are no slouches either, supported by Sanders' distorted bass and employing everything from chicken pickin' to 70's arena rock harmonies to the signature open string arpeggios and interlude riffs the band made its signature. Against the more natural sound Marshall's produce, a lot of the guitar parts sound a lot noisier and more dissonant than they normally would, creating a record with crunch to spare and a lot of heft.

The "groove metal" tag is lazily slapped on this band now, but that seems to come from the vexing that they give some listeners, since there are songs that are blatantly Neurosis-influenced ("Trainwreck"), songs with more blatant rock feels ("Mother Puncher"), songs with a less-odd metered (and better written) Meshuggah feel ("March of the Fire Ants"). There are even a few death metal growls thrown in deep in the mix that, with the hardcore/sludge influence in the band, made them decidedly unique and difficult to categorize. This difficulty also made them appealing to all sorts, since they were never too much of one thing to alienate fans of a particular scene.

In terms of vocals, Troy is the dominant voice on this album, and possesses a gruff/hoarse sort of sludge metal throat that paces itself and is served well by the band's sparse lyrics. Like a lot of metal records, the lyrics are framed in sentence fragments and bandy ideas instead of presenting something fully detailed and literary like other genres. This isn't much a drawback since its a normal concession and a good amount can be determined or interpreted from what little is presented lyrically. As this is more of a guitar and drums record anyway, the lessened focus on vocals (particularly vocal rhythms which are performed well and in proper place but not anything special) and lyrics isn't surprising but doesn't really take anything away from the record as a whole.

This record was a landmark piece of original metal with great songwriting and proficient playing that hadn't yet ("Blood Mountain") bordered on the soulless and rhythm-less wanking of most progressive and technical metal. To tread a tired cliche, this album is just as heavy and crushing as their name, aesthetic, and song titles ("Trampled Under Hoof", "Crusher Destroyer", "Where Strides The Behemoth") implied and is perfect for anyone remotely into sludge but doesn't mind something that sounds this technical. Only hampered by "Trilobite" (which is maybe one plaintive Mastodon track too many and the sole dull entry on a surprisingly catchy album) and the second half of "Trambled Under Hoof" (which drags on a bit into "heavy-for-the-sake-of-heaviness" territory), "Remission" is a majestically heavy 00's metal and strong case that metal isn't quite dead. It's just that most of the bands can't write songs for shit.


floodwatch said...

Good call. "Mother Puncher" is still the best thing Mastodon has ever done; it's like Kyuss on a meth binge.

Mostly, Remission gets more plays out of me because it's raw as fuck and before the band started their ill-advised "maybe we should attempt to sing here" habit.

Christopher said...

Lighthouse Rock- They lost me on Blood Mountain. They seemed to have lost the plot on that album, even though it was their biggest album with the Guitar Hero/Mainstream Rock crowd.