Ask Mastodon's drummer, Brann Dailor, about his band's current tourmates, Gojira and Kvelertak, and he'll give you a response that could easily apply to his own outfit: "I think that [they're] equipped with some kind of intelligence. It seems like there's some thought put behind the songwriting and the riffage. It's not your run-of-the-mill heavy metal."
Mastodon has been among the most consistent and innovative metal acts in America since emerging from Georgia's flourishing sludge-metal scene in the early 2000s with its debut album, Remission. 2004's Leviathan is widely considered to be one of the great metal albums of that decade, and it marked the start of a series of highly acclaimed concept albums that includes 2006's Blood Mountain and 2009's prog-oriented Crack the Skye. Each earned the band a herd of new fans, some of whom might not have ordinarily listened to heavy metal.
Three years removed from the chart-topping (by metal standards), mainstream (by metal standards) success of the band's fifth studio album, The Hunter, Mastodon has just finished recording a new album, Once More 'Round the Sun, produced by Nick Raskulinecz (Deftones, Rush, Foo Fighters).
"It's another slab of Mastodon," says Dailor. "It's heavy and simple. It's fast and chaotic, and involved. It kind of covers all the bases. It's a proper Mastodon album, as in: It's super-varied and sort of all over the place, as far as styles are concerned. It draws from every album that we've done in the past and then treads some new ground."
The album's debut single, "High Road," is indeed a fast, chaotic, unwearying four minutes that picks up where The Hunter left off. Chugging, jagged guitar riffs clear the way for a belt-along chorus before blasting off into the gnarliest reaches of the metalverse.
Fans won't be able to hear Once More 'Round the Sun for themselves until June 24, when it's released on Reprise. But in the interim, they can catch a preview of what's to come when Mastodon headlines a short North American spring tour. Just don't expect more than a tease: "We're playing a couple new songs, but that's about it," says Dailor.
"We're going to be pulling out some oldies that we haven't played in a long time, because basically we're in between records. We already finished The Hunter touring cycle, and we haven't started the Once More 'Round the Sun cycle yet, because the album won't be out, so mainly [we'll play] old stuff we haven't done in years and years."
The band's decision to dip into its back catalog might be consciously aimed at appeasing longtime fans who have witnessed, tolerated and even resented Mastodon's explosion in popularity and evolution in sound over the past decade. Strained relationships between a band and its earliest supporters are nothing new, but there's no denying that the set lists for Mastodon's past two stops in Pittsburgh (in 2012, with Opeth, and in 2013 on Mayhem Fest) were almost exclusively devoted to material from The Hunter, its newest, and most accessible, work to date.
"You don't want to play the same set you played the last time, 'cause then [the fans] start hearing about it, and they say, ‘Eh, I'm gonna skip it,' 'cause they already saw it," says Dailor.
Even if the prospect of hearing "Iron Tusk" doesn't excite Mastodon traditionalists, the opening acts should give even the most dour heavy-metal purist reason to circle pit.
French technical death-metal band Gojira visited Pittsburgh last year, when it opened for Slayer. Onstage, lead singer Joe Duplantier has one of the best snarls in metal, and his brother, Mario, plays the drums like a modern-day John Henry, with double kicks fast enough to take on some sort of steam-powered drum machine. The band's most recent album, 2012's L'Enfant Sauvage, is so heavy that the fracking industry could use it as an excuse for why there have been so many earthquakes lately.
Norwegian six-piece Kvelertak, too, visited Pittsburgh in 2013, headlining a tour that included Black Tusk and Cancer Bats. Touring with Mastodon might be akin to being called up to the big leagues. The band, whose name translates to "Stranglehold," has only two studio albums to date, but its latest offering, Meir, has garnered the same levels of hype that Mastodon encountered early in its career. Erlend Hjelvik, the band's vocalist, is the centerpiece, combining the raw punk ferocity of Fucked Up's Damian Abraham with the cataclysmic yells of Deafheaven.
The tour makes fewer than 20 stops nationwide, skipping even Mastodon's hometown of Atlanta. The fact that Pittsburgh made the cut partially salves the pain of being left off the band's monumental 2010 Blackdiamondskye tour, with Deftones and Alice in Chains. But while that tour had the star power, this bill acquits itself with sheer ferocity.
"It's just one of those ‘planets align' type of tours," says Dailor. "It really works, you know. It's the perfect bill."