Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we follow Mastodon’s impressive career, from their 2002 debut, Remission, to their most recent effort, 2021’s Hushed and Grim.
Atlanta quartet Mastodon have spent 20-plus years as one of the most daring, dexterous, and delightfully badass metal bands of the new millennium. That’s no small feat considering how many forward-thinking acts are out there. However, it’s hard to disagree given the foursome’s unparalleled knack for channeling influences like Iron Maiden, Neurosis, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson into wholly characteristic concoctions of vibrant sludge/stoner/progressive metal madness.
From the beginning — with 2002’s savage Remission and 2004’s more sophisticated Leviathan, the group — comprised of singer-bassist Troy Sanders, singer-guitarist Brent Hinds, singer-drummer Brann Dailor, and guitarist Bill Kelliher — showcased a singular ability to fuse thunderous temperaments with remarkable melodic flair and toweringly epic scopes. Of course, 2006’s Blood Mountain followed, offering a superbly colorful, elaborate, and zany full realization of that recipe.
Afterward, 2009’s comparatively spacey and accessible Crack the Skye emphasized the band’s 1970s prog rock influences. Then, 2011’s The Hunter and 2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun basically acted as hodgepodges of their predecessors’ standout proclivities. 2017’s Emperor of Sand saw the palpable return of Crack the Skye producer Brendan O’Brien, while 2021’s Hushed and Grim expectedly provided the troupe’s most mature and extensive collection so far.
Along the way, they’ve had several LPs peak highly on the Billboard 200. They’ve also been nominated for many prestigious awards (earning a Grammy win in 2017 for Best Metal Performance), and featured in numerous video games (including Tony Hawk’s Underground and Guitar Hero III), movies (such as Monsters University and Bill & Ted Face the Music), and TV (Game of Thrones).
While there really is no weak Mastodon album, some are simply more special than others. With the band set to kick off its co-headlining US tour with Opeth (tickets available here), we’ve penned this definitive rating of their eight studio albums. Hunt down our ranking below.
8. The Hunter (2011)
Megalodown (Analysis): When Mastodon set to work on 2011’s The Hunter, they were four albums into their career and batting 1.000. Expectations were reasonably high. To follow up 2009’s Crack the Skye — their most ambitious and commercially successful effort to date — was no small order. Would the band go full prog, expanding on lengthy excursions like “The Czar”?
Maybe Mastodon needed a breather from the intensity of their own material. The Hunter almost sounds like a different band: an attempt at writing a straight-ahead heavy rock album. There’s an emphasis on pop song structures and melodies, and the band hoist a stoner-rock sound akin to Queens of the Stone Age. The sludge and stoner metal scenes ran parallel and often overlapped around the turn of the decade in 2010; the transition in style wasn’t too surprising or outlandish.
Yet, fans got the sense that Mastodon were pumping the brakes and easing off the more complex blend of prog-psych riff mastery that defined their first four albums. Three LPs into their major label partnership with Reprise, the band were settling into a more mature, mainstream sound. Who could blame the band for wanting to craft a more consumable product to the masses? They’d already carved three masterpieces, and one thing’s for certain — The Hunter isn’t redundant. Even if it’s their weakest full-length, it exemplified a band taking a brave career leap, naturally evolving and refusing to recycle its own ideas.
Quintessence (Best Song): Opener and lead single “Black Tongue” got the hype rolling for The Hunter. The track hints at the more accessible rock direction the band were moving toward, but it still brought the heaviness of past records. The rest of the album fails to live up to it, perhaps another reason the LP received a lukewarm reception from eager fans. “Black Tongue” got us too stoked, and unfortunately, there wasn’t more where that came from. The album peaked with its first song and single.
Tread Lightly (Worst Song): If The Hunter’s stock peaked when “Black Tongue” was unveiled, the disappointing follow-up single “Curl of the Burl” let the wind out of the sails. The hammed-up lyrics and an overt QotSA vibe came out of leftfield, beckoning suspicious fans to inevitably toss around tired accusations of Mastodon “selling out.” The band wanting to make a more accessible record isn’t the problem; it’s that the song is simply not very good. The Hunter turned out to be more like “Curl” than “Black Tongue.” — Jon Hadusek
7. Remission (2002)
Megalodown: Raw and inspired, Mastodon’s debut full-length Remission introduced the Georgia quartet with 11 uncompromising blasters. Drummer Brann Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher brought technical metal and metalcore influences from prior acts and the virtuosic musical wizardry those genres required. Meanwhile, bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds added a gruffy Southern-sludge vocal approach. Mythological and literary lyrical themes elevated the compositions with undeniably metal imagery.
When storied metal label Relapse introduced Mastodon and Remission, the beacons were lit and the scene responded. In the age of millennial nu-metal and post-grunge, metal needed a new flag bearer; something more artistically substantial that could elevate the genre spiritually and intellectually.
Mastodon were that band, and Remission was the sound of the war horn — a call to arms in the battle against the rising hordes of false metal. Mastodon would sharpen and hone their sound on future albums, but this humble debut maintains an historical relevance that makes it required listening for anyone interested in the development of modern metal.
Quintessence: “Trilobite” is the standout track. Carrying a beautiful atmosphere and more melodic sound, it is the most indicative of what Mastodon were capable of in the recording studio. The longer track length offers a bit more space for slower tempos and more dynamic range; the band had those prog inclinations from the beginning.
Tread Lightly: “Trampled Under Hoof” is an example of the technical metalcore influence that was still present in Mastodon’s sound at this time. The arrangement is claustrophobic and the verses collapse on themselves with choppy time-signatures and rhythmic fissures. It’s proficiently played, but deliberately difficult and somewhat aimless. Mastodon could have been a math band, but they would rein in the complexity on future releases … for the better. — Jon Hadusek
6. Emperor of Sand (2017)
Megalodown: After developing their conceptual and compositional expertise with their first four works, the foursome went down a looser and livelier route on 2011’s The Hunter and 2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun. While still entertaining and praiseworthy, the duo were more polarizing than their forebearers. Therefore, it’s no shock that the group re-teamed with Crack the Skye producer Brendan O’Brien to create the guaranteed-not-to-fail Emperor of Sand. Easily their safest venture, it’s an extremely engaging and representative sequence that simply doesn’t take enough risks — good or bad — to feel notable.
What is notable is that it’s their first LP to earn a Grammy nod for Best Rock Album. Although it lost to The War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding, its opening song — “Sultan’s Curse” — earned the band its first Grammy for Best Metal Performance. As for its prevailing topic — mortality — its tale of a desert wanderer being “handed a death sentence” by the namesake monarch was inspired by the band’s multiple encounters with cancer.
Emperor of Sand sounds great — with marvelous touches from O’Brien — and flows well. It’s also full of irresistible hooks (“Show Yourself,” “Steambreather,” “Roots Remain”) and intricately erratic musicianship (“Word to the Wise,” “Andromeda”). That said, its relative lack of daringness and variety results in a somewhat unexciting experience. It’d be much more amazing if we hadn’t essentially heard it six times before.
Quintessence: It’s probably an unpopular opinion, but “Precious Stones” strikes the sharpest balance between compelling melodies and incredible instrumentation. Hinds’ leading Southern drawl is as pleasing as ever, and the group’s harmonies are quite tight. All the while, the first two minutes foster tempting anticipation for what’s undisputedly the greatest guitar lick on Emperor of Sand. It’s the totally sublime cornerstone of the composition, and it ingeniously dictates how the rest of it ebbs and flows.
Tread Lightly: “Scorpion Breath” is exceedingly loud and aggressive, but it fails to stand out among the rest of the album’s tracks. Even with the addition of frequent collaborator Scott Kelly (Neurosis) — plus some nice acoustic arpeggios and startling tempo changes — it’s serviceable at best. Admirers of Mastodon’s markedly bestial early period likely adore it, but for the rest of us, there’s not enough to latch onto. Honestly, it merely takes up space before things get back on track with “Jaguar God.” — Jordan Blum
5. Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014)
Megalodown: Following the tame reception toward The Hunter, the band offered up the best of both worlds with 2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun. Everything Mastodon threw at their previous LP — the pop hooks, the stoner rock tropes — is better applied here. They’d found the ideal blend between the early-era prog/sludge and the modern heavy rock sound.
At this point, Mastodon had also mastered the triple-vocal versatility of Sanders, Hinds, and Dailor. Each brings their own distinct and recognizable timbre, and producer Nick Raskulinecz managed to balance the trio perfectly across 54 minutes — three singers for the price of one. It’s one of Mastodon’s greatest assets and makes Once More ‘Round the Sun arguably the group’s most playful full-length. Each track sounds fresh and varied, while the vocal hooks are as memorable as the riffs.
Quintessence: Kicking off with an alluring guitar line, the six-minute opus “Asleep in the Deep” bolsters the middle of the tracklist. A dreamy arrangement of melodic vocals and Voivod-esque prog workouts create a psych soundscape, among the prettiest in Mastodon’s catalog. This was art rock that was missing from The Hunter. It’s gorgeous stuff.
Tread Lightly: “Aunt Lisa” kicks off with a stellar, winding opening riff. But the track gets disqualified for its bizarre, awkward ending featuring a gang chorus of cheerleaders chanting: “Hey, ho, let’s f**king go!” As previously stated, this is Mastodon at their most playful… maybe too playful in this instance. — Jon Hadusek
4. Hushed and Grim (2021)
Megalodown: By most accounts — including our own, on this very list — Mastodon’s second decade wasn’t as artistically prosperous as their first. It’s not that they ever got “bad,” but rather that they seemed to lose a bit of their striving momentum and intrigue. In other words, they sort of stopped challenging themselves and their audience, settling instead for complacent retreads of very familiar mindsets and techniques.
Admittedly, Hushed and Grim doesn’t rewrite the Mastodon rulebook very much, either. However, its earnest introspections about life and loss (carried over from 2017’s outstanding Cold Dark Place EP) and heightened — if overly prolonged — sense of somber importance undoubtedly yields the quartet’s most grown-up and weighty excursion. (Hell, it’s dedicated to their longtime manager, Nick John, who passed away from cancer in 2018.) Gone are the colorful antics and novelized narratives, as the band clearly has something more urgent, poised, and honest to say.
At nearly 90 minutes in length, Hushed and Grim is officially Mastodon’s first double album, and absolutely has some fat to trim. Yet, for the most part, it synthesizes their traditional invigoration (“Pushing the Tides,” “Savage Lands”) with intensified moments of poignancy and calm (“Sickle and Peace,” “Skeleton of Splendor,” “Had It All”). It’s contrasting moments like these — among many others — that showcase refined ferocity in conjunction with newfound sensitivity. From beginning to end, then, Mastodon cultivate beloved wildness amidst nurturing tamer wisdom.
Quintessence: Hushed and Grim kicks off with its strongest selection, “Pain with an Anchor,” which channels Crack the Skye’s “Oblivion” with its dramatic guitar-work and verses. Specifically, Dailor’s mournful confession — “Oh my dear / The damage is done here / I disappear / A love with no anchor” — is quite moving, especially in how it’s juxtaposed by Sanders’ gravelly responses. Add to that the robustly spiraling arrangement and you have a thunderously evocative way to start.
Tread Lightly: Despite its entrancing keyboards and fiery guitar solo, the penultimate “Eyes of Serpents” loses by default. Mainly, it’s a tad too sluggish and banal, lacking the complex feistiness and melodic draw that make so many Mastodon tunes so enticing. That’s not to say that it’s a poor inclusion — far from it — but it can’t compete with the plethora of surrounding gems. Also, its placement as the lead-in for finale “Gigantium” doesn’t do it any favors. — Jordan Blum
3. Leviathan (2004)
Megalodown: It was with Leviathan that Mastodon established themselves are a forerunner of modern metal. Released in 2004, it seemed like everybody — not just the metal community — was talking about the group’s sophomore album. The scene needed some fresh energy, and Mastodon delivered.
Metallica comparisons were tossed around, not necessarily due to similarities in sound, but due to the widespread exposure and acclaim Leviathan garnered. Even non-metal listeners were willing to take a chance on Mastodon. Other acts from the Southern sludge scene of Georgia (Baroness, Kylesa, etc.) also rode the wave created by the Moby Dick-sized whale on the cover (the Herman Melville novel serving as a unifying concept for the LP).
Leviathan gets straight to the point with opener “Blood and Thunder” and dishes out some of Mastodon’s heaviest and sludgiest songs. The significant leap in production and tonality was immediately noticeable. For that reason, it’s a great entry point into the band’s early era. The music was still extreme and “bestial,” as Jordan previously stated, but more approachable than Remission.
Quintessence: A template track for Mastodon’s dual wielding prog-sludge attack, “Blood and Thunder” is beloved in the hearts of the Mastodon faithful. As the album opener, it was the ultimate first impression and signaled the band’s arrival to the global metal sphere. The metalcore influences of the band’s early material had mostly fallen away. Mastodon instead applied their neck-snapping riffs and breakdowns into groovier, more robust arrangements like this one. A guest appearance by Neil Fallon of Clutch provided the ultimate stamp of approval for this artistic leap.
Tread Lightly: We don’t recommend skipping much of anything on Leviathan. So, when it comes to singling out a weak track, it comes down to riffs, and the guitar lines and washy mid-tempo chords of “Naked Burn” are among the most pedestrian here, relatively speaking. These riffs are still a cut above your average metal song, but against nine other tracks crammed with amazing guitar sections, the bar is high. — Jon Hadusek
2. Blood Mountain (2006)
Megalodown: 2004’s Leviathan cemented Mastodon as kings of their domain. In fact, it did such a spectacular job of melding their sludge/thrash/progressive metal inclinations that they needed to shake things up considerably if they were to continue growing artistically and commercially. Blood Mountain accomplished precisely that by acting as the wonderfully bizarre bridge between their initial brutality and their eventual shift into more welcoming and vivid personas. It remains their most audaciously weird and eclectic statement.
The earth-centric collection maintains its precursor’s use of fictional backdrops and guest musicians. In particular, its chronicle of a man being pursued by a Cysquatch — “a one-eyed Sasquatch that can see into the future,” Dailor explained — as he takes the crystal skull to the titular location was brought to life with the help of QOTSA’s Josh Homme, Neurosis’ Scott Kelly, and The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Isaiah “Ikey” Owens. Their contributions play a major part in the LP’s ceaselessly inspired eccentricities.
The rhythmic and/or textural peculiarities of “The Wolf is Loose,” “Capillarian Crest,” “Circle of Cysquatch,” “This Mortal Soil,” and “Bladecatcher” sustain Blood Mountain’s exhilarating quirkiness. Meanwhile, “Sleeping Giant” and “Colony of Birchmen” are two of their most triumphantly addictive songs, and closer “Pendulous Skin” wraps it all up with rustically trippy catharsis. Sure, Mastodon outdid themselves with their follow-up, yet they’ve never been more boldly experimental and refreshing.
Quintessence: Virtually every tune could take this one for different reasons, but the sheer catchiness of “Sleeping Giant” makes it the winner. After all, it builds with mesmerizing mystery until Mastodon unleash the superlative guitar riff of their career. The ways in which it reoccurs around the rest of the score – which also features lovely acoustic fingerpicking, energizing percussion, and captivating vocal trade-offs – is downright intoxicating. What’s more, its ingenious thematic continuity foreshadows their future endeavors.
Tread Lightly: As epically ominous as it may be, “Hunters of the Sky” is almost inarguably the most mundane and forgettable track here. Musically, it keeps things fairly simple and repetitious, so much so that there’s little to distinguish Mastodon from their myriad metal brethren. Plus, Sanders’ coarse singing just isn’t very enticing, just as some of the lyrics (“Fly reptile / Leather wings / Bones hollow / Petrified”) are clumsy and pedestrian. — Jordan Blum
1. Crack the Skye (2009)
Megalodown: Not even the delightfully wacky and multifaceted Blood Mountain could prepare you for the psychedelic prog metal perfection of Crack the Skye. Essentially, it scaled back the quartet’s penchant for vicious vocals and instrumentation in favor of vintage prog rock spaciness, intricacy, and conceptual grandeur. Those alterations – alongside Dailor now acting as third lead vocalist – meant that they’d improved in every way. While their surrounding sequences impress on their own merits, none come close to rivaling what the gang achieves here.
Like its predecessors, the record centers around an element: aether (or heavenliness). Beyond that, its tale (revolving around a paraplegic astral traveler whose spirit possesses an ill-fated Rasputin) serves as the group’s top-tier merger of historical influence, personal meaning, and imaginative storytelling. You see, the title is a tribute to Dailor’s sister, Skye, whose untimely passing caused Dailor enough heartache to “crack the sky.”
Those intentions wouldn’t mean much if the outcome toppled under its own ambitious weight. Fortunately, though, the 50-minute odyssey does the exact opposite by offering a relentlessly focused, resourceful, and riveting fusion of grippingly dynamic melodies and magnificently complex and cosmic arrangements. It’s an utterly spellbinding and affective trip from start to finish, with enthralling hooks, mind-blowing musicianship, and seamless segues resulting not only in Mastodon’s unadulterated masterpiece but in one of the greatest progressive metal albums of all time.
Quintessence: It has to be gargantuan closer “The Last Baron” because it’s truly the emotional and compositional culmination of the whole journey. The bookending blend of dramatic acoustic arpeggios and caustic coatings with Hinds’ remorsefully sung reflections are breathtaking; in-between, it erupts into a flamboyantly apocalyptic display of dizzying rhythms and riffs whose back-and-forth momentum channels Dream Theater, Frank Zappa, and Black Sabbath in equal doses. It’s a tour-de-force of Mastodon’s many specialties, plain and simple.
Tread Lightly: Each piece of Crack the Skye’s astonishing puzzle is indispensable, but the second movement – “Divinations” – is clearly the most disposable. Why? It’s the only one that doesn’t evolve Mastodon’s formula in a significantly adventurous and surprising way. Instead, it emphasizes the comparatively straightforward and barbaric structures of the foursome’s first two outings. It’s an awesome track in its own right – don’t get me wrong – but it can’t measure up to the LP’s other six songs. — Jordan Blum