Mastodon is a veteran of the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, having played on the main stage in its first year in 2008. Still, the Atlanta-based progressive metal group is feeling a bit like the odd band out on its second appearance on the touring festival.
The sixth annual Mayhem Festival, which features four stages packed with metal acts both new and old, heads to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Saturday. Mastodon is once again on the main stage, billed third, after horror rocker Rob Zombie and modern hard rockers Five Finger Death Punch and before opener Amon Amarth.
“There’s definitely a bigger vibe, and there’s a lot of bands, although I’m not sure how or where we fit in with them — bands like Five Finger Death Punch and Rob Zombie,” Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher said from a tour stop in Grand Rapids, Mich. “I kind of feel a little — not alienated, but I feel like we’re definitely the oddball band on the bill. You’ve got Butcher Babies, Emmure, Machine Head, Children of Bodom — all pretty straight-laced metal stuff — and then there’s Mastodon. We’re a little different, but I think that’s OK; people seem to dig that about us.”
Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival
WITH: Rob Zombie, Five Finger Death Punch, Mastodon, Amon Amarth, Children of Bodom, Behemoth, Emmure, Born of Osiris, Motionless in White, Thrown Into Exile, Machine Head, Job For a Cowboy, Butcher Babies, Battlecross, Huntress, Citi in the Sea
WHEN: 1 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $85, $65, $55, $45, $35 (lawn)
Finding an audience
Mastodon’s mix of thrash, progressive and sludge metal has been steadily gaining popularity since the band debuted in 2002 with “Remission.” With its fifth album “The Hunter” (2011), the band took a turn towards simplification, with shorter songs and more readily apparent hooks than on past albums like 2009’s “Crack the Skye.” This has led to the band’s greatest commercial success so far — the album landed at No. 10 on the Billboard 200, and single “Curl of the Burl” netted a Grammy nomination, the band’s second.
More mainstream acceptance has led to at least one unusual collaboration, with “Island,” off the band’s 2004 album “Leviathan,” featured in a scene in the new Pixar sequel “Monsters University.” This isn’t the band’s first cartoon appearance, although it is its first appearance in a film primarily geared towards children — in 2007, the band wrote the opening song for the film “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters,” entitled “Cut You Up with a Linoleum Knife.” The band was originally approached to write a new song for “Monsters University,” as well.
“They asked us to write a song, which I did — they wanted it to sound like ‘Island’ off ‘Leviathan,’ so I wrote a song that was 30 seconds long, with two different parts,” Kelliher said. “I sang on that, but they scrapped it at the very last minute — at the 11th hour, they said, ‘We’re going to go back to the original now.’ They were supposedly going to put a toy out with me singing the song I wrote and recorded — there was gonna be a toy, that’s the rumor that Pixar told us, but I don’t know if there’s truth to that.”
While the notoriously fickle metal audience has given the band some grief over the relatively more commercial sound on “The Hunter,” it’s not something Kelliher and the rest of the group — bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds and drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor — are too concerned about.
“There’s always someone who’s going to criticize your next record. When we were going to work with Brendan O’Brien on ‘Crack the Skye,’ people said, ‘Oh God, he’s gonna make you guys sound like Bruce Springsteen,’” Kelliher said. “We’ve been gaining fans with each album, and the next record will hopefully continue that tradition. We’ll keep on writing music that stays interesting for us to play, to sing about, to perform every night.”
That next record is already in the works. Prior to a European tour in May, the band began pre-production on the album, compiling 25 to 30 rough song ideas — the most the band has ever written for an album.
“Normally we just write as many songs as are going to be on the record, so we’ll write like 10 songs and use nine or 10 of them,” Kelliher said. “So we’re in really good shape and making good headway for the new record. We’re excited for how it will turn out. [Producer] Nick Raskulinecz [Deftones, Foo Fighters, local trio Charlie Watts Riots] came down to Atlanta a couple months ago, before we went to Europe, and we hashed out a couple of songs with him and did some pre-production. He was real hands on, and it really felt right.”
Musically, the band has always pushed at the boundaries of its sound, from 2004’s “Leviathan,” a concept album based on the novel “Moby Dick,” to the intricate, lengthy songs found on “Crack the Skye.” The new material, according to Kelliher, continues some of the streamlining found on “The Hunter,” but will also forge ahead in new, and old, directions.
“I believe that a lot of the songs will have a ‘Hunter’-esque kind of quality, but we’ve written so much stuff — some of the songs sound more like some [Neurosis singer] Scott Kelly singing over ‘Remission’ songs,” Kelliher said. “There’s a lot of different things going on. It’s a lot of rock — ‘Hunter’ had a lot of rock, a lot more simplicity. I like the idea of a lot more vocal harmonies and melodies going on over simpler rock guitars, kind of trading in the technicality for a little more groove.”
One element that will return on the new album is an overarching theme, which every Mastodon album besides “The Hunter” has had.
“I don’t think we’ve fully got it all worked out yet, but yeah, we’ve got some ideas about what that’s going to be about,” Kelliher said.
Each of the band’s previous four albums was based on one of the classical elements of fire, earth, water and air. “The Hunter” was dedicated to Hinds’ brother, Brad, who died of a heart attack while hunting prior to the album’s release, although the songs didn’t necessarily focus on that.
“ ‘The Hunter’ was made at a strange time in everyone’s life — there were a lot of turning points and different things going on beyond our control,” Kelliher said. “We wanted to write a record for the sake of writing a record, let the songs do the talking, and that gave us more freedom. These songs can all give out different things; they don’t have to tie into a story.”