Rock on the Range preview: Mastodon returns with Once More ’Round the Sun

By
From the May 15, 2014 edition

In the fall of 2010 archeologists uncovered mastodon bones in the backyard of a family home in Franklin, Tennessee. A little more than three years later, residents might have been surprised to spot the beast roaming the landscape of the picturesque town, which is located 30 minutes south of Nashville.

Of course, the Mastodon that descended on the city — the Atlanta metal quartet decamped to Franklin for six weeks of recording sessions in January 2014 — bore only the slightest resemblance to the long-extinct prehistoric creature, in that both are noticeably shaggy and are in possession of a similarly earth-shaking power.

The band, one of the standout acts performing at Rock on the Range at Crew Stadium this weekend (catch ’em on the main stage Sunday, May 18), arrives in town a little more than a month before its sixth album, Once More ’Round the Sun, surfaces on Reprise Records, and in a recent phone interview bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders compared his level of anticipation to that of an expectant father.

“We're at the point where we're very excited to see the album ... properly birthed into the world,” he said. “We're in the last trimester, so to speak. It was conceived and we gave it a name, and now we're waiting for this baby to be born and the world to look at it and hopefully think it's cute.”

The album documents a stress-inducing year in the lives of the group members (hence its title), though Sanders, reached on the road at a venue in Buffalo, New York, was hesitant to go into specific detail, instead touching on the broader themes that surfaced during the lengthy writing and recording process, which began in earnest in March 2013.

“During the touring cycle of [the band’s 2011 album] The Hunter, each person experienced a moment of darkness that presented itself as an obstacle, and you can either react negatively and enter a downward spiral, or you can take these things and try and turn it into something positive,” he said. “If something bad happens, we're going to pull from it because it's true and it's honest and it's sincere. Our art is a reflection of us as people.”

Songs like “Ember City” and the monstrous, riff-driven “High Road,” reflect this transformation, often toeing the line between darkness and illumination, which helps explain, in part, why the bandmates have such conflicting views of the material. Guitarist Bill Kelliher, speaking with The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, described Once More as a “more straightforward summer party record,” while drummer Brann Dailor labeled the music “dark and creepy” in an interview with Spin.

“It's like having a party in the summer, but not on the beach. It's more like, 'Come in to my dark basement,'” Sanders said, and laughed. “It's kind of a bit of both worlds. There are some moments on the record that are upbeat and fun, and there is that darkness. There are moments of every emotion under the sun involved on this one.”

Mastodon has never shied from exploring personal issues on record in the past — The Hunter, for one, touched on the accidental death of singer/guitarist Brent Hinds’ brother — but Sanders said this time around there was a real push to absorb these hardships and grow from them, and he made several mentions of transformation over the course of the conversation.

“[Music is] how we respond to things in life,” he said. “And hopefully you learn something and turn yourself into a better man.”

On record, however, the group is rarely this direct, instead taking these day-to-day experiences and channeling them into sweeping narratives as fanciful as the most out-there fiction. Witness its 2009 album Crack the Skye, which referenced everything from Tsarist Russia to astral travel to physicist Stephen Hawking’s theories on wormholes (“We enjoy masking the true essence of [the music],” Sanders said). It’s a part and parcel of the band’s desire to have listeners invest themselves more fully in the listening experience.

“Our lyrics aren't so literal and on the surface, so it's very open to interpretation,” Sanders said. “All four of us grew up holding vinyl in our hands … so our hope is people will immerse themselves in the album by holding the artwork and reading the liner notes and really becoming one with us for that 45-minute adventure. The art of the album is powerful to us, and we pay a lot of attention ... from the first lick to the last.”

Travis Shinn photo