Draft 3.0

The 2014 YouTube Draft

The Sad But True Fate of Pop-Metal

Mastodon’s ‘Once More ’Round the Sun’ is the band’s catchiest album yet, but it’s likely to be one more chapter in the rise and fall of a once-dominant subgenre

Back in March, about three months before the release of Mastodon’s latest album, Once More ’Round the Sun, I spoke on the phone for 20 minutes with the band’s drummer, Brann Dailor. In the traditional rock-band hierarchy, the drummer is typically the fourth, fifth, or sixth member (depending on whether your band is a quartet, quintet, or Arcade Fire) to do interviews. If the drummer talks to the media at all, it’s usually with local newspapers in secondary markets where tickets aren’t selling well. The reason for this is obvious: Unless you’re Don Henley, Neil Peart, Phil Collins, or the guy who sang “Sister Christian” in Night Ranger, the drummer is not considered the star or focal point of a rock group.

This is not true for Mastodon — Dailor is arguably the most recognizable person in the world’s greatest (though only semipopular) metal band.1 Dailor certainly stands out the most, due to his physical appearance (he’s the only member who doesn’t look like an actual mastodon) and instrumental prowess (he is currently rock’s most kinetic timekeeper). Dailor also occasionally sings and frequently contributes lyrics. But he and I didn’t talk about any of that. We instead talked about nothing for approximately 1,200 seconds.

It wasn’t anybody’s fault — we were discussing an album that I hadn’t heard yet and that Dailor didn’t want to parse so far out from the release date. Circumstances dictated that our conversation would be light on substance and heavy on clichés. (It was akin to an NFL writer talking to a running back in June about Week 1.) For instance, Dailor described the LP as “good” and “heavy” and “fast” and “rocking,” and promised that “it’s going to be an awesome thing for any Mastodon fan or any fan of heavy and interesting rock music to put on in the summertime and rock out to.” At the time, this sounded enticing but vague; now that I’ve played Once More ’Round the Sun repeatedly for the past few weeks, it’s still vague, but also accurate.

When I pressed Dailor for specifics, he demurred. He had suggested in previous interviews that Sun was inspired by a series of traumatic events that occurred recently in band members’ personal lives. When I asked if he could elaborate on that, Dailor replied flatly: “No. It’s really personal stuff. But it’s in the pudding, baby.” (Thankfully, the late addition of “baby” to this sentence made it suitably quotable.) Eventually, we changed the subject to our mutual affection for mid-’70s Stevie Wonder.2

I suspect there was another reason for Dailor’s reticence: He didn’t really need a person like me to promote his album. Mastodon has a loyal audience that will buy whatever the band puts out regardless of what music critics write. Also, because Mastodon is broadly defined as a metal band, it has little incentive to even attempt to reach nonmetal fans. This is how metal works now. No “pop” genre is more segregated from actual pop music. This separation, of course, is not entirely new; in her landmark 1991 book Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, DePaul University professor Deena Weinstein refers to the metal audience as “proud pariahs,” which sounds like a Saxon album title from the early ’80s. This provincialism is primarily a reaction to a historically hostile music press, which in spite of recent strides continues to largely ignore metal as a topic worthy of serious discussion.

What’s different now in metal aren’t so much the flag-wavers at the core but the more approachable outliers — those “pop-metal” bands no longer appear to exist. Not that long ago, pop-friendly metal and hard rock ranked among the most popular music in the world. Up until the early ’00s, you could find ginormously successful examples of this music in the upper reaches of the pop charts going back more than 30 years, starting with the genre’s acknowledged originators, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. No matter how metal and hard rock changed over the years, there was always a version for the pop market. It could have been arena rock (AC/DC’s Back in Black), the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (Def Leppard’s Pyromania), L.A. glam (Quiet Riot’s Metal Health), post-NWOBHM (Def Leppard’s Hysteria), post–L.A. glam (Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction), thrash (Metallica’s … And Justice for All), post-thrash (Metallica’s “Black Album”), grunge (Soundgarden’s Superunknown), rap-rock (Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory), or post-grunge (Creed’s Human Clay). Some of these albums are masterpieces, and some are the opposite of masterpieces. But no matter the style of metal, they sold millions and millions of copies.

Now, hardly anything sells “millions and millions of copies” these days. But metal has been particularly averse to mass acceptance in the past decade. Pop-metal as a concept3 has been rendered virtually extinct. What happened?

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Calling Mastodon the “world’s greatest metal band” doesn’t go far enough. Mastodon belongs on the short list of the very best American bands of any genre from the last 10 years. Over the course of six records, Mastodon has somehow managed to steadily grow its audience without getting any less weird. Mastodon’s most beloved LP (2004’s Leviathan) is a punk- and prog-fueled song cycle based on Moby-Dick that reimagines Slayer worshiping Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway instead of Satan. Ten years later, Mastodon is now signed to Warner Bros., which has positioned Once More ’Round the Sun as a Queens of the Stone Age LP cut with cheap trucker speed and paperback science fiction. In the context of the band’s discography, it’s a relatively “normal” record. But Mastodon’s singularity remains intact. The band’s 2002 debut, Remission, has grittier guitars and screamier vocals, but otherwise it’s not all that different from Sun. The latter might be more refined than the former, but not to the degree that the former would be embarrassed to ask the latter to shotgun a beer.

Mastodon still has never recorded a power ballad (unless you count the song on the last record about fucking on a spaceship). Mastodon did, however, write an album (2009’s Crack the Skye) about a paraplegic whose spirit leaves his body in order to explore intergalactic wormholes. Compared with that, Sun is a just straightforward rock record. Mastodon has by now more or less codified its method of attack. Each song will have a guttural guitar sound and a sparkly guitar sound playing off the growly bottom. Whichever time signature the song starts with will probably not be the time signature it ends with five to seven minutes later. The vocals are intense in a proactive sense; whoever is singing (whether it’s Dailor, guitarist Brent Hinds, or bassist Troy Sanders) sounds like a person perpetrating an ax-assisted slaughter, rather than a person running away from an ax-assisted slaughter.

If you like this kind of music, you probably own at least a few of Mastodon’s records by now. At a time when “riffs” have become a rare currency for rock bands — just try to find a memorable one on any self-described rock record released in the past 12 months — Mastodon is notable for stockpiling them like Krugerrands. But for those who don’t care about metal bands, Sun will be swiftly brushed aside into a marginalized ghetto.

It’s not even that Sun is abrasive or inscrutable; in fact, it’s probably the catchiest record Mastodon has ever made. My two favorite songs, “The Motherload” and “High Road,” streamline the band’s monstrous aggressiveness into sunny packages that deliver reliably shout-along choruses. But unlike the pop-metal blockbusters of the past, there’s no single track or marketing hook that’s going to sell Sun to the masses. In sound and form, Sun is essentially a Rush record, a collection of considerable but ultimately esoteric delights destined to be appreciated by a niche audience.4 It’s like Moving Pictures without “Tom Sawyer.”

To better illustrate the historical downturn of pop-metal blockbusters, it’s helpful to compare the arc of Mastodon’s career to that of Metallica. Like Metallica, Mastodon established itself on its first three albums as the most respected underground metal group of its time. Like Metallica’s fourth album, 1988’s … And Justice for All, Mastodon’s fourth LP, Crack the Skye, was the band’s first to appear in the Billboard top 10. Where the comparison breaks down is record no. 5 — for Mastodon it was 2011’s tremendously fun The Hunter, which was an ideal gateway into Mastodon’s discography for antisocial Foo Fighters fans. For Metallica it was 1991’s “Black Album,” which was a gateway for basically everybody. The “Black Album” had “hard” songs, it had “pretty” songs, it had a song that quoted the score from West Side Story, it had a song that Kid Rock later sampled, it had (from a commercial standpoint) anything you could possibly want from a rock record. Incredibly, the “Black Album” even made (some) women care about Metallica, which therefore convinced guys who wanted to meet (some) women that seeing Metallica in concert was a good idea. For all these reasons, the “Black Album” went on to become the best-selling album of the SoundScan era, and it’s still selling, crossing the 16 million mark just last month.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to expect that Mastodon or any band could do what Metallica did with the “Black Album.” But the point remains: Even as the record industry has imploded and popular taste has splintered, there have still been recognizable superstars coming out of hip-hop, R&B, country, dance, folk, and mainstream rock. But the best metal bands — even relatively palatable ones like Mastodon — don’t attempt to go broad anymore. Metal instead has grown inward, spawning subgenre upon subgenre. It would rather cultivate eccentricity than new audiences. Now the closest thing to a consensus favorite in the scene is Behemoth’s The Satanist, one of the most acclaimed metal releases of 2014, a blackened blast of curdled noise that’s pretty glorious in places but will otherwise never make arenas full of foxy, jean-jacketed females swoon.

Consider another parallel between Mastodon and Metallica that’s somewhat simplistic but telling nonetheless: In a patronizing 1991 profile of Metallica, Spin predicted that the “Black Album” would “make it safe to like Metallica,” in part because the all-black cover shunned “goofy heavy metal cartoonery.” Here is the (awesome) cover for Once More ’Round the Sun.

I don’t think any of this is bad, necessarily. I argued last year that metal is in the midst of an extended golden age, with scores of bands kicking at the boundaries of rock by upending conventional song structures, experimenting with dynamics that veer between ethereal beauty and hellish brutality, and generally producing some of the most mind-blowing records of recent years. But I remain a stubborn supporter of aggressive music that’s also melodic, chorus-centric, and, above all else, proudly extroverted. In the past, hard rock has been the happy medium between metal and pop, and if you pay close attention, there are still plenty of bands (ranging from the epic brilliance of Baroness and Kylesa to the goofy outrageousness of Ghost B.C. and Steel Panther) making that kind of music. But it’s something you have to know to look for. It’s not going to just barge into your life and recalibrate your senses the way popular music can. This is the one thing metal is missing right now.

Metal’s isolationism is understandable given how shabbily it is still treated in most sectors of the entertainment press. Even among supposedly open-minded music writers who claim to abhor snobbery in a “post-taste” critical climate, metal still provokes ignorant judgments. Just last year, “dean of American rock critics” Robert Christgau called metal fans “jerks” and “rage heads.” It’s hard to imagine a scenario where classifying fans of any other genre in this way would be acceptable.5

“Metal fans are very territorial, which I think is only natural when you’ve been historically ostracized from mainstream culture,” Albert Mudrian, editor-in-chief of the excellent monthly metal magazine Decibel, told me over email last week. “It’s, like, we’re part of a group that’s been told all of our lives that we can’t hang out with the cool kids.” Decibel has long been a gathering place for this ostracized demographic; it’s the rare publication in which the death of Gwar’s Dave Brockie merits a cover story rather than a brief, bemused obituary. But even Mudrian is eager to see a “bridge” band capable of producing an album in the vein of the pop-metal blockbusters of old.

“That last metal band I can remember that seemed to make any mainstream impact was System of a Down, and most of the underground metal community that I consider myself part of saw them as nu-metal joke,” Mudrian said. “The real problem might be that everything is compartmentalized these days; you’ve got the classic metal/rock of Metallica or AC/DC, the big, dumb, weenie roast rock of stuff like Alter Bridge and Five Finger Death Punch, and then virtually everything else falls into some kind of general ‘underground’ category, whether that’s Lamb Of God or Prostitute Disfigurement. And there is no bridge band that anyone can agree on to link those so-called underground bands with anything in the big, dumb, weenie roast genre. I feel like you’ve gotta make headway there before you join the Metallica or AC/DC echelon.”

Mastodon could still become that kind of band — Once More ’Round the Sun certainly seems like the rare record that fans of Alter Bridge and Prostitute Disfigurement might be able to agree on. But that’s still just talking about the metal/hard-rock tent. What about everybody else?

I asked Dailor about this, too. “Does Mastodon ever think about how popular it wants to be?” I inquired. “No,” was Dailor’s characteristically terse reply. He added that Mastodon’s ultimate career goal is to be a festival headliner, so that it can afford a “bigger, better” stage set.

“Something like that would be cool,” he said. “With Crack the Skye, we did a whole movie thing and that was really fun. We’d like to do more of that kind of stuff. I think it’s coming. I think we’re almost there, after 15 years. Well, who knows? Maybe we’re on the downturn. Only time will tell.”

Visions of an ambitious live show couched in modest career expectations — how metal.

Filed Under: Music, Metallica, mastodon, "The Black Album", Pop-metal, AC/DC, Torche, gwar, Decibel

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden