Mastodon – Remission

4 out of 5

Label: Relapse

Produced by: Matt Bayles, Mastodon

I’m not positive when I would’ve started putting Mastodon on my radar, with Remission or Leviathan. But I know they were selling like magic hotcakes and the ol’ Tower Records, and my burgeoning tastes in metal / hard rock were being poked and prodded at with recommendations and reviews always mentioning these Mastodon cats. Stuff I liked “sounded like” Mastodon; or if I think so-and-so’s good… etc.

These recommendations were actually appealing to me, even if I associated Relapse records with grind-ier stuff than I generally preferred; the sources of these mentions didn’t set off my holier-than-thou music judgements that would otherwise send me scurrying away from any band who could claim more than 2 people in a crowd as fans, even when NPR types (major perpetrators of those triggered judgements) would purchase the CDs.

…But I somehow didn’t actually make it around to the group until their major label debut, Blood Mountain, and had to pair my absolute love that release to the inevitable sell out claims. I then worried a bit: if this was a more streamlined Mastodon, am I not going to appreciate their more “metal” days?

I shouldn’t have worried, of course.

Remission might feature a lot of song structures that are, now, rather typical of Mastodon (the Metallica breakdowns to a yelly, prog-y verse; some post-hardcore bridges), and the lyrics are not of the fantasy themes of then-to-come albums – rather of the angry music chant-y variety – but it’s absolutely clear that this band had all the right pieces in place to make a splash. The music still sounds urgent, and unique, 20 years on – that’s uniqueness despite those “typical” moves, as Remission presents them with the excitement of discovery and the refinement of polish. Later albums may have perfected this even further, which is also exciting, but the sense of a group being borne into full form is there, given weight by the emotional underpinnings of those vocal growls – something I’d argue was maybe lacking when they switched over to purposeful concepts. Mastodon was also always a perfect match for producer Matt Bayles, whose tendency to sharpen sounds to bring out the technical playing can work against some heavier groups, but Mastodon jumps so deftly between time changes and scale noodling and headbanging riffs that it requires the producer to soften that approach a bit: the music has all due crispness, while maintaining a fuzzy edge that makes the heaviness appropriately all-encompassing.

Sequencing is also ideal on Remission, hitting us with quick rockers, extended jams, and then stepping in with quieter moments so that the disc never settles into a dismissable mood. It is the kind of album that you can’t ignore; it makes you want to listen.

At the time I write this, it has been around twenty years since Remission’s release. I listen to quite a bit of metal / hardcore, old and new, and, yeah, it’s a genre that’s had its sense of intensity redefined over the years as new ways of making our ears bleed are mushed together. But classic and timeless albums can actually earn those tags for a reason, not just right place, right time. Remission is one such release. Stacked alongside any technical metal album of the day, it still stands up, and probably knocks it down. Placed alongside modern Mastodon albums, it still has relevance within their oeuvre.