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Jurassic Larks

The big beasts of city-flattening, conceptually inclined prog metal, Mastodon have just had their toughest year yet. Thankfully they’ve come out of it with a monster of an album.

Ten years ago, Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher watched Some Kind Of Monster, Metallica’s portrait of a dysfunctional family, in a cinema in Atlanta. In common with Metallica fans the world over, he was appalled at what he saw: the documentary, he recalls, made him “want to puke”.

“I couldn’t believe that my idols,” he says, “a band I’d always looked up to, had these stupid problems that they needed a psychiatrist to unravel.”

As his own band passed their tenth anniversary, Kelliher came to view Metallica’s film in a rather more sympathetic light. Like James Hetfield, in 2001 he had admitted himself to a rehab facility to address issues with alcohol. Like Hetfield, he too could feel band responsibilities beginning to consume his life, and cause tensions with his family. It was then that Kelliher decided that he himself might benefit from seeing a therapist.

“You get to a point where you just need to talk to someone who has a completely neutral view on your life,” Mastodon’s father figure explains, sitting in an Atlanta hotel lobby the day before his 43rd birthday. “You need someone who has no connection to your family or band world or friends. But I found myself talking about the band, and my relationship to each person in the band, and started thinking: ‘Man, this is no different to what Metallica were doing.’ A band is like a marriage; sometimes you need counselling. Everybody has their own ideas, and sometimes in a democracy nothing gets done. It’s hard for all of us.”

“I remember being a kid,” says Brann Dailor, Kelliher’s friend since the two played in bands in their home town of Rochester, New York in the mid 90s, “and thinking that a band like Metallica must be shielded from all the bad things in life because they’re rich and famous, that life must just be a non-stop party. And it’s really not, it’s just regular life. And regular life can be a pain in the ass sometimes.”

This idea forms the spine of Mastodon’s eagerly awaited sixth album, Once More ’Round The Sun. Unlike 2004’s Leviathan, which was based on the classic novel Moby Dick, or 2009’s jaw-dropping astral projection-themed Crack The Skye, ’Round The Sun isn’t a concept album in the conventional sense. Described by Dailor as “A Year In The Life Of Mastodon”, it deals with questions of loss and rebirth, temptation and destruction, fate and faith, friendship and family. Like Queens Of The Stone Age’s Like Clockwork, it’s a collection rooted in darkness but straining towards the light.

Heaven knows life can turn on a dime, so let’s enjoy our time’, Mastodon sing on the title track, which channels QOTSA, Soundgarden and Biffy Clyro at their most epic. ‘This time, this time things will work out just fine,’ runs the chorus of The Motherload, arguably the most accessible song Mastodon have ever written. Getting the members of this close-knit unit – completed by Atlanta native Troy Sanders (vocals/bass) and Alabama-born vocalist/guitarist Brent Hinds – to get specific about these themes and tropes is a challenge. As one, the four men will tell you that the album is based on “personal stuff”, drawn from “dark days”, that it’s a “hopeful” album, about overcoming “negative elements” and their own “destructive” tendencies. Deeper than that, they decline to dig.

“It’s been a tough and stressful year,” Kelliher sighs, “but we want to leave the album open to the interpretation of the listener.”

“It’s hard to divulge details, because there are other people involved,” Dailor says apologetically. “In the past we’ve said too much. We addressed my sister’s passing on Crack The Skye and I then had 18 months of journalists saying: ‘So, your sister killed herself: how did that make you feel?’ You’re really asking that? Sometimes people need to realise that we’re real people, not just rock’n’roll cartoons placed here for their entertainment.”

These guys could, however, make very entertaining rock stars. When Warner Bros signed Mastodon from cult US underground metal label Relapse after the release of Leviathan there were sniggers in certain quarters of the music industry: what, exactly, the critics sniped, did the label who’d launched teen-friendly acts Green Day and My Chemical Romance into the mainstream think they were going to do for this maverick, awkward, stubbornly independent collective?

Those critics were markedly quieter when the band’s 2011 album _The Hunter _made the _Billboard _Top 10 and lead-off single _Curl Of The Burl _grabbed a Grammy nomination.

Expectations for Once More ’Round The Sun, then, are understandably high: given the obvious commercial appeal of _High Road, The Motherload _and the title track, there’s a feeling that Mastodon may have created the 21st-century version of the Black Album; an album to restore metal as a mainstream concern in the US, where no metal act has clocked up a million-selling album in more than five years. It’s easy to forget that the authors of that album were outsiders once too. No pressure then, gentlemen.

“I think Warners felt they got something unique when they signed us,” says Dailor. “And I think they did. The combination of these four people is unique and interesting. And without attempting to move towards the centre, this band wants to be legendary. There is no ceiling to our ambition.”

Asked how Once More ’Round The Sun moves the Mastodon story forward, Kelliher offers the opinion that his band are “starting to write like adults. We’ve learned that it doesn’t always have to be crazy,” he insists. “There’s a fine line between being progressive and simple showing off, and people don’t like musicians showing off. Well, I guess that a percentage of people do. I went to see Joe Satriani once, and people in the crowd were laughing out loud because some of the things he was doing were blowing their minds. But at some point it becomes masturbation. And masturbation is fun for one person, but it doesn’t do much for everyone else.”

“The great thing about being in Mastodon is that we’re not enslaved; we can do whatever we want,” says Hinds. “I think we don’t know how to write songs that are simplified versions of ourselves, but what comes out is always natural. We’re always growing. We’re like a moving art installation, always looking to pop off in new directions.

“Mastodon is the baby I created with Brann and Bill and Troy. And he’s fourteen now, young Mastodon. Soon he’ll be getting ready for college. Within the context of the classic rock band we want to become, Mastodon is a young band. I want to be the Eagles, man, I want us to stay together forever. I want to be playing gigs with silver hair and a white beard. And so I still feel we’re only really getting started.”

Once More ’Round The Sun is out now via Reprise.

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