In late September, the monsoon rains are unyielding. At this time of year, some 10" can fall in a month, the height of the wet season in Cambodia. The rains make the surrounding countryside lush and verdant, but are so unwieldy for the Mekong River that, bulging at its banks, it expels the water into the nearby Tonlé Sap River. The incredible torrent of water from the Mekong — enough to increase its flow by a factor of 50 — forces the 125-mile-long Tonlé Sap to completely reverse its flow and empty into a lake of the same name, flooding the surrounding forest and expanding the body of water to ten times its usual size.
After the Mekong’s waters crest, usually in late October, the Tonlé Sap’s flow reverts to its proper direction, and water flushes out of the enlarged lake. When the river’s flow reverses, fish flow with it, toward the millions of people who live in the capital city of Phnom Penh. It is said that the annual process is a pressure-release valve for the river system.
Just north of the lake, Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor is wandering about, exploring the sandstone galleries of the temple of Angkor Wat. For two weeks, Dailor will be here, as far as humanly possible from his day job and lost in the lens of his camera. He’s quick to insist that he likes the beach just like any other guy, but the truth is that Dailor seeks adventure — and his search for man-made wonder has brought him to the world’s largest religious building, a sprawling series of stone towers from the 12th century.
Unsurprisingly, the complex is almost completely surrounded by water. Legend has it that the ancient city of Angkor Wat collapsed six centuries ago after a relentless barrage of droughts and floods. Experts say the stress was too much to bear.
Dailor can identify. For the next two weeks, he will do everything — anything — but play drums. After a 22-hour flight back to his home in Atlanta, he will fly north to New York City to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman, promoting his band’s new album, The Hunter.
For a heavy-metal band like Mastodon, describing an album as “heavy” is almost too simple. And yet that’s precisely what it is. Sonically, it’s of great weight to the ears, with crackling drums, sludgy guitar riffs, and plenty of attitude. But more importantly, it is what flowed forth from the band’s minds after considerable duress — a pressure-release valve for the pent-up stress of a death in the family. It was too much to bear.
Bradley Ray Hinds died in December 2010. An avid outdoorsman, he had been out on a hunting trip in Alabama when he suffered a heart attack.
At the time, Brad’s brother Brent — the scraggly, bearded fellow better known as Mastodon’s frontman — had just kicked off the first official studio sessions for the band’s next album. Dailor, Hinds, bassist Troy Sanders, and guitarist Bill Kelliher were excited to begin recording again.
“We had a bunch of things loosely together but we decided to put the wheels in motion and record. When we start, we have to finish — our music is like milk; it has a short shelf life. If we come back to it, it might not have the same [vigor].”
The men of Mastodon had spent more than a year touring the world behind their previous album, Crack The Skye, including a string of dates with Deftones and a reformed Alice In Chains. That album was an homage to Dailor’s sister, who committed suicide at age 14. The band, wearied in more ways than one after the better part of nine years on the road, was looking forward to a fresh start. Reinvigorated after a month-and-a-half sabbatical, they moved into a new practice space, split into three separate rooms: jam room, studio, live room. Then they pored through the sketches of ideas they had scribbled down during those many months on the road.
“During the Alice In Chains tour, it was an arena tour. It’s hard to leave the arena. It’s very contained. There’s always this fear you’ll get locked outside before the show. You’re staying close, in some hockey locker room. We had amps backstage and Bill and Troy would jam. If we heard anything good, I’d grab my phone and record it. When we got home, we had almost the entire record there on my phone, just the riffs. It was a good jumping-off point.”
They began writing. Then the phone rang. Brad had died.
“I wasn’t sure how Brent was going to react. He stayed with his family in Birmingham. Around February, we picked things up again. It felt like he needed to be down there [in the studio] and be busy. I’d call him every day — a couple of weeks it was just me and him down there, and we wrote a ton of stuff. We were having a lot of fun with each other, writing. The songs on the record all sounded triumphant. They sounded like the distraction that they were.”
At first listen, you’d have a hard time discerning that The Hunter is anything but a mindlessly fun rock record to blast out the windows of a highway-bound car. The opener’s title, “Black Tongue,” references that part of a parrot. The lead single, “Curl Of The Burl,” is an absurd narrative about a cast of characters on methamphetamines who use chainsaws to fell trees to sell their knotty growths for more drugs. “Blasteroid” is a child-like attempt to lash out in violence. “Stargasm” is about sex in outer space.
“In the past, we’d retool stuff to death. Play it over and over and try it this way and that way. This one was different. We just didn’t really meditate on things for too long. It was very scatterbrainish.”
But dig deeper into the middle of the album and a more sincere sentiment emerges. “Octopus Has No Friends” is really about returning home after months on tour. “All The Heavy Lifting” prompts you to “just close your eyes and pretend that everything’s fine.” And the title track is a pensive, pained ode to Brent’s brother.
“Mastodon is what we know. Mastodon is that normalcy that you want when something crazy happens. I wanted that to be there for him. An engineer friend came down [to the studio] with us every day and we’d write lyrics and songs. A lot of the stuff ended up being really instinctual — whatever parts followed after a riff. We wouldn’t revisit it.”
The band’s recording sessions became their own pressure-release valve. By February, the band met with producer Mike Elizondo, better known for producing major hip-hop acts such as Eminem but also Avenged Sevenfold’s 2010 album, Nightmare. From countless demos, they extracted 15 solid song ideas.
“We just went down to the practice space every day. It felt like it was the only thing we ever had any control over. If we go down there, we’re being active and productive.”