Friday, January 8, 2016

Music To Write By: Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder”

Why Listen? To hear how artists simultaneously subvert and affirm genre conventions; for literary inspiration turned up to 11.

Heavy metal and all its manifold subgenres don’t exactly have a high-brow reputation, and it’s no wonder why. The thunderous offspring of Malcolm and Angus Young tend to bifurcate when it comes to subject matter, either veering off into grim personal ruminations or indulging in violent fictional narratives extreme enough to make even Stephen King blanch. (Think of, say, Slipknot for the former camp and Cannibal Corpse for the latter.) But one thing almost always remains true no matter a band’s approach: Heavy metal lyrics major in surface-level angst with little room for subtlety of style. Although note my choice of the word “almost,” because many rules have exceptions and Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder” from the 2004 concept album Leviathan is one of metal’s biggest.

On first listen, “Blood and Thunder” does little to dispel prejudices. Jackhammering speed-metal drumwork and guitar riffs so blistering they seem almost unhinged nearly drown out lead singer Troy Sanders. But eventually you start to catch the four words comprising the chorus: “White whale, / Holy Grail.” And you begin to think, “That sounds an awful lot like ... No, no, it can’t be. But I’d almost swear that they’re talking about Moby Dick.”

You’d be right.

Every song on Leviathan references Melville’s magnum opus, with “Blood and Thunder” giving ferocious voice Captain Ahab’s obsession with the titular whale, especially when guest vocalist Neil Fallon of Clutch contributes a howling bridge:
Split your lungs with blood and thunder
When you see the white whale.
Break your backs and crack your oars, men,
If you wish to prevail.
This ivory leg is what propels me.
Harpoons thrust in the sky!
Aim directly for his crooked brow,
And look him straight in the eye.
Is it overreaching to call the song brilliant? Yeah, probably. Still, it manages to simultaneously subvert and affirm genre conventions. Literary yet intense. Fictional yet personal. Aurally careening yet carefully composed. Few artists manage such a feat—especially when the volume is dialed up to 11.

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