When I was a young Contrarian, my musical tastes were informed by records of a certain vintage. Some of this music might seem obvious or pedestrian — Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath — but I also explored interesting side avenues with so-called “progressive” groups like King Crimson. At the time, I didn’t care much for other prog bands of the era, because they weren’t visceral enough. And contemporary metal seemed either silly or melodically lacking, although I did love me some Slayer (still do).
Only now, at the ripe age of 37, am I experiencing the fusion of progressive rock and metal in a way that makes sense for me. Although there is currently a slew of bands mining the intersection of complexity and heaviosity, there are two groups that embody the best of this integration: Opeth and Mastodon.
Both bands have new albums out (actually, Opeth’s record was released yesterday; Mastodon’s drops next week), and both have stirred up controversy among their core audiences for moving away from their metallic roots. NPR (!!!) is hosting a full-length stream of Opeth’s Heritage; Mastodon’s The Hunter can be heard in its entirety at their YouTube channel.
Analyzing a band’s motivations is a favorite pastime for music obsessives, but it is ultimately a pointless endeavor. Especially in this case, as both groups have telegraphed their stylistic shifts over previous releases.
For those not familiar with either act, here’s a bit of background.
Opeth is a Swedish band that came out of that country’s technical death metal scene. Early on, they distinguished themselves from their peers by combining the pagan mood of black metal with the more chops-oriented death style. Throw in the occasional acoustic guitar and vocals that alternate between growl and croon, and you have something approaching original. Over the years, Opeth adopted an even more progressive stance, becoming increasingly sophisticated in arrangement and execution. By the time Blackwater Park was released in 2001, the band had become a juggernaut, with a devoted international fanbase. Fast-forward to 2011 and the release of Heritage — an album that loses nearly all of the metal trappings, instead fully embracing a 1970s progressive rock aesthetic. Message boards are lighting up with comments from heshers who think the band sold out, wussed out or both. Actually, they simply became more themselves.
Mastodon sprouted from entirely different soil. Heavy-drinking, hard-drugging miscreants from Atlanta, Georgia, the band was originally as much a part of the hardcore scene as the metal community. Like their sludgy forbears Neurosis, Mastodon trafficked in crushing riffs peppered with fuck-all attitude. If you’ve spent any time in the hardcore trenches, you know the type: dirty black Carharts, full-sleeve tattoos and a kind of freewheeling nihilism. What made these guys stand out was their combination of go-for-the-throat aggression and enlightened musicality. It wasn’t long before they began incorporating elements of other styles, namely progressive rock. Their last album, Crack the Skye, is likely the high water mark of their prog odyssey, but The Hunter brings even more melody to the fore. Some of the songs even utilize — gasp! — major keys.
I could probably spend another couple thousand words describing why these bands’ latest records are worth your consideration. But what I really want to get across is that there are still acts that are willing to defy fan expectation while producing music that is ostensibly for a commercial marketplace. These aren’t avant-garde bands. They aren’t hipster noise. They aren’t irreconcilably retro (although both make fine use of older styles). They will never be featured in prime time TV shows or car commercials. Yet both records will sell, and concerts will be packed. I’d like to think it’s because the music is actually interesting.
If I were just starting out as a musician, I’d be incredibly inspired by Opeth and Mastodon. Hell, I am now. I’m not sure that Lux Eterna Records will be releasing any comparable records anytime soon, but I’d like to think that we share a commitment to musical exploration and sonic quality. That and a killer ’70s prog collection.