The Anniversary

Remission Turns 20


When sound designer Gary Rydstrom created the roar of the Tyrannosaurus rex for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, he was looking for something that would feel otherworldly and organic at the same time. He ultimately settled on a composite of field-recorded animal noises: the high-pitched scream of a baby elephant, the stately growl of a lion, and the deep gurgle of an alligator. The resulting roar was a triumphant, terrifying masterstroke, a sound that was totally alien and yet just familiar enough to feel like a threat. Rydstrom won two Oscars for his work on the film, and his T. rex roar became one of the most readily identifiable pieces of sound design in movie history. That roar is also the first thing you hear when you hit play on Remission, the debut album by Mastodon. As a piece of pure intention-setting, it’s hard to imagine a sample that would have worked better. The Mastodon that emerged from the Atlanta underground 20 years ago this Saturday was primordial and elemental, but in a way that felt exhilaratingly new. They also wanted to kill you.

Mastodon formed back in 2000, just as the members’ previous bands were starting to circle the drain. Bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds had played in Four Hour Fogger, an experimental punk band more famous for wearing bikinis (or nothing) onstage than they were for anything musical. Drummer Brann Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher were in the math-metal outfit Lethargy, who had just played their final show on Christmas Eve, 1999. The foursome started jamming together, and they invited their friend Eric Saner to move down to Atlanta from Rochester to sing. A few months later, Saner was out, and Mastodon were a four-piece, with Sanders and Hinds forced to share the vocal load. They freely admit that they didn’t know what they were doing yet, so the vocal parts on the earliest Mastodon material, including Remission, are charmingly unpolished, mostly monosyllabic howls. They frequently sound like Rydstrom’s T. rex.

When the roar that opens Remission dissipates, the band launches into “Crusher Destroyer,” still as good an encapsulation of the early Mastodon experience as any other song. At an even two minutes, it’s the shortest track that’s ever appeared on a Mastodon full-length, but it packs almost everything they do well into that condensed runtime. It’s built around a pair of deceptively simple guitar riffs — one chunky and propulsive, the other squiggly and melodic. The Alabama-born Hinds peppers the song with deep-fried southern rock licks, his free, loose playing a vital counterweight to Kelliher’s more disciplined precision. Dailor, a disciple of Neil Peart and Phil Collins, rips through the song’s pummeling drum patterns with a nimbleness and grace that’s not common in metal. Crucially, “Crusher Destroyer” exists outside of subgenre. If it’s sludge metal, as Mastodon were frequently called in those early days, then it’s got to be one of the fastest, shortest, grooviest, proggiest sludge metal songs of all time. (A media-driven “Southern sludge” scene soon arose with Mastodon as unwitting figureheads, but today, it’s hard to argue that they sound much like Baroness, Kylesa, Black Tusk, or the other bands who got swept up under that umbrella.) “Burn your game plan,” Sanders and Hinds bellow at the song’s conclusion. It sounds like a mission statement.

The sheer amount of heat that follows “Crusher Destroyer” in the Remission track listing is staggering. There’s the Headbanger’s Ball staple “March Of The Fire Ants,” which invited every teen metalhead to imitate the way Hinds played the main riff, with his guitar held high above his head. The short, sharp “Where Strides The Behemoth” and “Burning Man” were aggressive enough to get bodies moving in the pit but also loaded with Mastodon’s schizoid idiosyncrasies. “Ol’e Nessie” and “Trainwreck” were early blueprints for the intricate, progged-out pieces that would anchor the band’s next several albums. “Mother Puncher” brought the motivational hardcore chants of Hatebreed and Terror to a frenetic, groovy metal tune. (“Chase/ Chase ’em down and string ’em up/ Hate/ Hate the ones who bring you down” feels as empowering today as it did 20 years ago.) “Elephant Man” ends the record on a curveball — a long, hypnagogic instrumental that lets Kelliher and Hinds’ soulful sides shine.

The best song on Remission is “Workhorse.” In just under four minutes, Mastodon summed up everything about who they were and what they were all about, chaining their message to an all-obliterating freight train of a main riff. The band even called their 2006 live DVD and documentary The Workhorse Chronicles, cementing the track’s status as the unofficial theme song of early Mastodon. The hourlong doc depicts Mastodon as the hard-touring, hard-partying, hardheaded metal dudes that they were in those days, but you really just need to listen to “Workhorse” to get the same image: “Like a workhorse, stand for miles/ Work for you, never get tired.” Remission is brilliant, but its brilliance feels handmade and workmanlike. On their pre-Remission EPs and demos, Mastodon still sounded like an especially good local band, one you’d go out of your way to see as often as possible. With Remission, you could hear them leveling up in real time. “Workhorse” encapsulates the moment when they had one foot planted in the underground but had discovered the power to climb out of it. That moment wouldn’t last long. 2004’s seafaring Leviathan eclipsed Remission in both sales and critical acclaim; by 2006, they’d be signed to a Warner subsidiary.

Over the past two decades, Mastodon have become a heavy metal institution. They headline 5,000-seat amphitheaters. Their songs are in rotation on terrestrial rock radio. They won a Grammy in 2018, and they’ve been nominated for five more. At the genre’s highest, most hallowed levels, metal tends to be an old man’s game. Mastodon are starting to get on in years, but they’re spring chickens next to the likes of Iron Maiden and Metallica — arena-filling legends whose popularity only continues to grow as aging headbangers pass their fandom down to their children and grandchildren. That makes Mastodon a precious commodity: the rare metal band formed in the 21st century who play to a wide, general audience. Their albums have become increasingly divisive with diehard fans, especially those who came to the band early in their career (guilty as charged). But they’ve all been Mastodon albums, alive with the same energy that was there on Remission. We’re lucky to have them.

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