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Concept albums and sprawling, complex song structures have been somewhat of a trademark for progressive metal act Mastodon. Which is why, with the release of its stripped-down, fifth studio album, The Hunter, there has been a lot of buzz about the band’s alleged attempt to make music that’s more commercially viable.

“That’s something that’s definitely popular for a journalist to imagine,” says drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor. “But it’s the furthest thing from our minds when we’re writing music.”

In fact, Mastodon set out to make a more straightforward rock record simply because of the stress that accompanied the creation of previous efforts, which were highly involved in scope and execution.

“We were always beating ourselves over the head, trying to figure out how to make them more difficult to play,” Dailor says of constructing songs for past albums. “This one was totally different. Everybody was on the same page: Let’s go in here, close the door, and have a good time.”

Democracy Reigns

There is no designated leader in Mastodon, which consists of Dailor, bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, guitarist Bill Kelliher, and guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds, all members of Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA). Instead, the band treats decision-making democratically. “It’s one person tugging in one direction, and another person tugging in another direction, and what happens in the middle can be something great,” explains Dailor. “We want our art as four people to be as good as it can be. We’re very much a band in the true sense of the word.”

In the fall of 2010, while touring for a month with Local 76-493 (Seattle, WA) members Alice in Chains, Mastodon regularly set up practice amps backstage. Most days, they prepared for a show by experimenting with new riffs, which Dailor recorded on his phone. Yet there was no intention to immediately start work on a new album; the band was actually planning to take a yearlong break to rejuvenate. “It seemed like it was time for everybody to take some time for themselves,” Dailor recalls. “A lot of stressful things were happening.”

However, after the tour wrapped up, the members of Mastodon found themselves inspired once again. “It’s just our nature,” says Dailor. “We can all say we’re going to take a break, or we’re going to do this or that, but really, we want to be around each other, and we want to make music.”

Revisiting the recordings on Dailor’s phone, Mastodon realized they had a good stockpile of material. “We had almost a complete skeleton of what was going to be The Hunter,” Dailor says.

Rather than spend time building up and complicating songs, the band decided to stay true to the original riffs. They also used a different album artist and worked with a new producer, Local 47 (Los Angeles) member Mike Elizondo. “We owe it to ourselves to travel down those musical roads that present themselves when we’re together in a room,” asserts Dailor. “We don’t want to turn around and say, ‘Oh, no, we can’t play that because it doesn’t sound like Mastodon.’ It does sound like Mastodon, because we wrote it.”

Veritable Voyagers

Though they’ve ditched the overarching concepts with The Hunter, there was a time when storylines provided a framework for Mastodon’s overall vision.

In 2003, Dailor was traveling from Hawaii to meet up with his bandmates in London. “It was an incredibly long journey,” he says. “There were eight layovers.” Before departing, Dailor was in a bookstore in Hawaii and had the idea to use Herman Melville’s classic, Moby-Dick, as the inspiration for their second record, Leviathan. He reread the novel on his numerous flights, its themes resonating as he flew over first the Pacific, then the Atlantic.

Retrospectively, the band realized that its debut, Remission, dealt strongly with the theme of fire, so they had made the decision to base their next album on the element of water. That was as far as the notion had developed at the time of Dailor’s revelation.

“When I finally got to London, I had my sales pitch all worked out,” says Dailor. Moby-Dick, in which Melville refers to the eponymous white whale as a ‘sea-salt mastodon,’ seemed a great work to adapt into a concept album, and Dailor’s bandmates agreed. “I told them that it’d be nautically themed, and we’d be the crew of this ship—we’d be the Ahab, just searching for this thing.” The focal point was the journey, a concept that reflected the grueling aspect of touring. Dailor adds, “I drew a lot of parallels between our lifestyle and the book.”

Representing their lives is an important part of Mastodon’s creative output. Aside from stories of astral travels and climbing mythological mountains, there is a personal element to a lot of the band’s work. Crack the Skye paid homage to Dailor’s sister, Skye, who committed suicide when she was 14. The Hunter is a direct reference to Brent Hinds’ brother, an avid hunter who passed away in December 2010. “Life happens,” says Dailor, “and we very much embrace where our music takes us naturally.”

Lately, Mastodon’s music has taken them to a wide range of places, and the union helps enable that eclecticism. “It opens the door for us to do more, to have more opportunities,” says Dailor. “Involvement in television and movies, like Jonah Hex [for which Hinds composed the score], wouldn’t be possible.” There’s also a commonality between the band mentality that is so prevalent in Mastodon and the reliable watchdog that is the union. “We look out for each other, and the union looks out for us,” adds Dailor. “I’m happy it exists.”

An Ascent to Eminence

The Hunter finds the band moving away from the harsh vocal styles, epic storylines, and cryptic lyrics of the past. Each of their first four albums was based on a classical element: fire (Remission), water (Leviathan), earth (Blood Mountain), and air (Crack the Skye). With that cycle having ended, there were no preconceived directions for The Hunter. The fact that it’s not a concept album reinforces the new record as a collection of songs, where Mastodon left room to take surprising risks—most notably, a more traditional approach to riff-driven rock ‘n’ roll.

A fine example of such a song is “Curl of the Burl,” which, like many of The Hunter’s tracks, clocks in at about three and a half minutes; multiple songs on Mastodon’s previous album, Crack the Skye, were two or three times as long. “That song was written in like 20 minutes, done!” exclaims Dailor. “Yeah, it’s a simple song. Is it too simple? No. Who cares? We like it.”

Evidently, they aren’t the only ones: “Curl of the Burl” has been nominated for a 2011 Grammy for Best Hard Rock Single.

Mastodon has been nominated for a Grammy once before. In 2006, Blood Mountain, was released and the song “Colony of Birchmen,” featuring guest vocals by Josh Homme of Local 47, was a contender in the same category.

Blood Mountain entered the Billboard best-selling album chart at number 32, Mastodon’s highest placement up to that point. Continuing their rise, Crack the Skye debuted at number 11 in 2009, and The Hunter, released this past September, reached number 10.

It’s unclear at this point whether or not there is another concept album in Mastodon’s future. Writing new material isn’t a priority at the moment, as they continue to tour Europe until February 11, a day before the Grammys—but the practice amps are set up backstage once again. “We’ll see how we feel,” says Dailor. “It’s like we just birthed a baby into the world. Now it’s time to enjoy this child and nurture it in its live setting, give it to the people, and have fun with it.”

He adds, “It’s possible that our musical turnaround is going to be a little faster. I think we kind of surprised ourselves with how quickly everything came together with The Hunter.”