For metal heavyweights Mastodon out of Atlanta, it’s been a long ascension to becoming one of the biggest metal acts in the world. Since the four-piece outfit debuted with 2002’s Remission, the first in a series of loose concept albums exploring each of the four elements, they’ve drawn praise from music critics and scruffy kids in cargo shorts alike for their cohesive records, varied influences, world-class chops, and utter heaviness.
Mastodon’s fourth album, 2009’s Crack the Skye, is perhaps the most acclaimed of all their records, and it set the band’s course for following decade. Coming on the heels of two relentlessly heavy efforts — Leviathan (2004) and Blood Mountain (2006) — the record fuses elements of classic rock, prog, and psych into the band’s mammoth sound. It was the first sign that Mastodon were gravitating away from the fringes of extreme sound-making to something more palatable for the masses. Starting with Crack the Skye, Mastodon were an entirely different beast.
The shift in sound was brought about by one of the band’s most heavy-metal moments, says drummer Brann Dailor. Following Mastodon’s performance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards in Las Vegas, guitarist Brent Hinds suffered a severe head injury during a drunken fight with System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian and musician William Hudson.
“I think it really had a lot to do with the head wound Brent had sustained,” Dailor says. “He was home a lot because he had vertigo, just sitting at home and playing acoustic guitar and coming up with all these riffs that were a little bit more melancholy. When he came back, that’s what we started to gravitate toward. We had some other stuff that was heavier and crazier, but it just didn’t fit together. We had this chunk that was almost an hour long, and it felt like it was the album.”
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of Crack the Skye, Mastodon are playing the album from start to finish on Sunday, June 30 at Comerica Theatre. Like-minded prog-rock outfit Coheed and Cambria is co-headlining the tour, which will feature an absolutely bananas animated visual display.
Speaking with Phoenix New Times ahead of the show, Dailor says most of the tracks on Crack the Skye have become setlist staples for Mastodon over the past decade, so it’s not as if the band is revisiting long-dormant material. (“Quintessence” is the only song they had to relearn for the occasion.) This performance, he says, is more about doing justice to an album that was always meant to be considered as a whole.
“Out of all our albums, I always felt like this one was meant to be heard as one big, long, 55-minute piece,” Dailor says. “It just flowed together so perfectly in the studio, so I’m happy to be doing this again. I love it.”
Crack the Skye features more clean singing than Mastodon’s previous albums, thanks in part to Dailor’s contributions. Dailor began contributing backup vocals on Blood Mountain and has been featured more prominently with each passing album. His voice just doesn’t have the capacity to growl or shriek, he says, so his singing is naturally less gruff than his bandmates’. Plus, the album itself demanded a more harmonious approach.
“With Crack the Skye, the way it was unfolding, we just started going with more melodic singing, because that’s what fit that sound,” he says. “Trying to scream over that stuff seemed forced and unnecessary.”
Acknowledging that there are plenty of bone-crushingly heavy riffs throughout Mastodon's catalog, Dailor says they've never concerned themselves with appeasing the aforementioned metal dudes in cargo shorts.
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"It's just not a conversation anybody has," he says. "It's not like, 'We've got to be more heavy.' We just don't think about it in those terms. We all listen to lots of different kinds of music. Everything is available. If somebody writes something and we all dig it, we go for it. We don't have many rules; if we like it, we play it. ... I know there's a cross-section of our fan base that thinks it's important that we're heavy, but we don't think it's that important."
And whereas the identity of many bands is tied to lead singers, Mastodon’s sound is characterized to a great extent by the vocal contributions of all four members. Any one of them might take the lead on a given song, but, remarkably, it’s still instantly recognizable as Mastodon. And that's one element that hasn't changed since Crack the Skye dropped a decade ago: The project always been a true team effort.
"It takes all of us to make a Mastodon record," Dailor says. "There's nobody that is trying to monopolize or be in control of everything. It's a much better result when everybody is contributing at once."
Mastodon and Coheed and Cambria. With Every Time I Die. 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 30, at Comerica Theatre, 400 West Washington Street; comericatheatre.com. Tickets are $39.50 to $69.50 via comericatheatre.com.