“I sort of see music cinematically,” says Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor, “so when I’m hearing riffs and gravitating towards whatever either Brent [Hinds, guitar] or Bill [Kelliher, guitar] are writing or I’m writing, I see that little movie that plays in your mind’s eye.”
The cinematic tone is critical to the somber atmosphere of Hushed and Grim, the latest studio album from the Atlanta-based heavy metal band. Mastodon’s eighth studio effort and their first double-disc album, Hushed and Grim is a sprawling epic that reflects the heavy toll of Covid coupled with the devastating death of manager Nick John.
“We just didn’t feel good,” Dailor says. “And what came out of that dark feeling was this doomier record than we would normally do. If anything sounded happy at all we kicked it out.”
Mastodon found their creative process belabored by the Covid lockdown. “The pandemic happened and you’re just sinking and sinking for months,” Dailor says. “And through all that you’re writing.”
The title Hushed and Grim had been swirling in the back of Dailor’s mind for months and seemed increasingly appropriate as dark, sinister songs emerged from an extended writing process uninterrupted by tours and other outside concerns. The result is the band’s first double album.
“Let it be up to the fans if they want to sit and dedicate an hour and a half and listen to the whole thing,” Dailor says. “I like to do that — I like really long epic movies, I like really long epic albums if they’re available. We just figured we’d give everybody this big old slab because we felt like it worked well together. And why wouldn’t Mastodon put out a double album at some point in their career?”
It is the latest incarnation of an ever-evolving sound that has served the band well, vaulting them into the heights of critical and commercial success as the standard bearers for modern progressive metal.
When writing new material, the band always looks for fresh paths. It’s more creatively interesting for band members to explore new musical terrain than it is to go down a road they’ve already been down. “We know that there’s no changing the DNA of the players, so it’s always going to sound like Mastodon no matter what,” Dailor says. “But a new version of ourselves.”
Mastodon’s sound has grown out of a myriad of influences that band members bring to the group. “There’s lots to farm from with all the members,” says Dailor. “Every album is another opportunity to showcase another taste of the band members.”
That showcasing of different band members’ personalities is an interesting facet of Mastodon: In a world where lineup changes are commonplace, Mastodon has remained the same quartet — Dailor on drums, guitarists Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds, and bassist Troy Sanders — since their debut album, 2002’s Remission, and the result is a band whose members thrive personally and creatively on an intimate understanding of one another.
“We’re still close friends,” says Dailor. “When we get together it’s just 20 years of inside jokes, movie quotes and just trying to make each other laugh. I think that nurtures the writing relationship as well. And we’re proud of the fact that the four of us have stuck it out.”
Sadly, a darker shadow was cast over the writing process of Hushed and Grim with the passing of longtime manager and close friend Nick John from pancreatic cancer. “We just had a really special relationship with him. We couldn’t even believe it when we got the news. We had the ultimate hope that he was going to beat it. There was no way this was taking him down but . . . pancreatic cancer . . . that’s the one. You don’t want it. It was horrible to just see your friend shrivel up like that. You just have to watch it powerless.”
John’s passing would be directly addressed on the song “Skeleton of Splendor,” with lyrics penned by Troy Sanders. “This was the first big death for him,” said Dailor. “I don’t think he’d had anybody that was really close to him that passed away. His reaction to it is in all the lyrics.”
“Skeleton of Splendor” would prove to be a centerpiece of the band’s November 24 concert at The Eastern, seeing them change gears to embrace the fluid calm of Pink Floyd. That downshift into dreamy, haunted explorations and melancholy reflections was passionately accentuated by Sanders’ beleaguered, world-weary lead vocal cascading in and out of somber guitars and soaring solo lines. Other tracks from the new album — such as “Pain With an Anchor,” “Teardrinker” and “Pushing the Tides” would take the evening down similarly sinister roads. Played alongside Mastodon classics like “Crystal Skull” and “Black Tongue,” it made for a diverse but always captivating evening.
That morbid pain, laid naked and unadulterated before the listener, may define the new album. But listening to Dailor speak, it’s clear that sharing such open honesty with longtime friends was deeply transformative and sustaining. “I feel lucky to have Mastodon in my life,” he says. “I could be at home in the pandemic and just feeling like the biggest piece of human garbage and I can go down to practice and get together with the guys, rip through some tunes, and feel whole again.”