[Dixielandjazz] Metal & Jazz - Something in common?

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Mon Dec 27 06:35:58 PST 2004

For the Music Literati on the DJML. Posted w/o comment. :-) VBG

Steve Barbone

December 27, 2004 NY TIMES

Hast Seen the New Metal Album?
Metal has more than a little in common with jazz, which may be one of the
reasons I like it. 

I won't connect the dots between improvisational styles in jazz and metal,
though I know several metal-loving jazz musicians who could. But here are
the facts: both kinds of music have a few big, durable, long-haul names -
Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Wynton Marsalis, Keith Jarrett (I have never typed
those proper nouns in a row before) - and, miles beneath them, hundreds of
good-to-great bands that are the beneficial termites of American culture,
gradually breaking down dead styles and returning them to the soil. To their
small but deep audiences, they are loved, reviled, subdivided endlessly into
styles and argued about passionately.

Both kinds of musicians, jazz and metal, are deeply concerned with
technique, and deal with essential aesthetic issues of style and progress.
There is a dominant sound (or several) in jazz, as there is in metal, and
for the last 20 years adjustments to those dominant sounds have been made at
a much slower rate. (Does this mean the genres are exhausted? No. It means
that the musicians' perceptions of the music's needs have changed.)

To an outsider, great swaths of metal sound just about the same. Ditto jazz.
Generally speaking, both kinds of music rest on an underground, highly coded
premise in the if-you-have-to-ask-you'll-never-know category.

These circumstances make it possible for a great metal record to appear
without the larger world of popular music ever knowing about it. "Leviathan"
(Relapse), the second album by the Atlanta band Mastodon, has so far been
that kind of record.

Let's get the concept out of the way quickly. "Leviathan" is a song cycle
based on Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." The band's drummer, Brann Dailor,
was reading the novel last year and came across the early passage that calls
the whale "the salt-sea Mastodon"; after that, the rest of the book seemed
like a metaphor for a small crew of manic, undershowered rock musicians on
tour. (The whale is the audience, if you like, or maybe the elusive quantity
of hard-rock apotheosis.) The directly Melville-related lyrics on
"Leviathan" appear early. The line "There's magic in the water that attracts
all men" roars over a crooked riff in "I Am Ahab." Others apply by
extension: "Island" invokes the old metal themes of Norse gods and volcanic
eruptions, and the lyrics of "Hearts Alive" are generally about watery

But what's fantastic about "Leviathan" is that it sums up the last three
decades of hard rock - a great width of styles, bludgeoning and tricky, from
Metallica to Iron Maiden to King Crimson to Black Flag to Black Sabbath -
with incredible acuity, extracting a great deal of what has been most
effective in them. 

Yet the music doesn't seem like a dull exercise in classicism or position
itself above the form altogether. Mastodon comes from an intellectual
underground of the genre: Mr. Dailor and Bill Kelliher, one of the band's
guitarists, were once in Today Is the Day, a kind of severe art-rock band.
There can be a queasy air of superiority in the studied under-productions
and over-cogitations of underground metal, whether it's the kind that deals
with polymetric rhythms or the kind that deliberately repeats a droning riff
more times than you thought possible.

You don't find that in "Leviathan." Mastodon has nearly mastered rock
dynamics: they start out with durable riffs, build them up, then tunnel into
tricky new strains of frenetic melody, diverting your attention from the
payoff. When the reward finally comes, it is gold-plated, returning home to
the viscous riff and the earthquake groove. (The music is written
cooperatively by the four band members, who include Troy Sanders on bass and
the guitarist Brent Hinds; the dense, shiny production is by Matt Bayles.)

Mr. Dailor occasionally plays much more complex fills than he needs to.
These songs hold together through a thought-out symmetry, but they do have
many parts. One of the guitarists plays a careening country lick during a
break in "Megalodon," after a line about a watery grave, and before a fast
Iron Maiden-like two-beat rhythm. There's so much flash and detail. Yet
through the record they keep serving the bottom level, the no-nonsense
headbanger frequencies of metal.

The record keeps those questions in the air that keep an album interesting:
Who are these guys? What's their angle? Who allowed them to do this many

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