In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Even though drummer Brann Dailor had just sent over his list ranking Mastodon's records, he still had to talk himself into the task by the time of the interview. For a couple minutes, it seemed like a sudden dial tone was in my near future.
"I don't even know if that's real, that list. This is really tough. I was almost gonna call you and just cancel it, because I was so perplexed about it," says the outspoken drummer.
"I don't even know why I'm putting myself through it, because it feels to me that a ranking album should be a critic's job. And I'm not a critic. I'll do it, but I'm gonna probably just rank them all number one, 'cause it really is like your kids. You can ask me again tomorrow, I could rearrange them all for different reasons."
Ranking your kids takes time. But 45 minutes after Dailor's initial hesitations, he had meticulously dissected much of Mastodon's history and traced the band's growing legacy as a prog-metal powerhouse, while touching on members' personal tragedies and losses, including his own.
Mastodon's concept albums are packed with killer sludge-rock riffs over a backdrop of dark, fantastical stories of redemption and pain, but they also know when to lean on each other when shit goes south. During the making of this year's Emperor of Sand, Dailor says he and guitarist Bill Kelliher would spend time in the morning, just talking. (Kelliher's mom was going through brain cancer, while Dailor's mom was struggling with an ongoing brain injury.) Dailor says that was a way to let off some steam before heading into the basement to lay down riffs and complex beats.
"Luckily for artists and musicians and for people who have this passionate, artistic outlet, they can put all their terrible shit in there and spin it around and make it into something pretty," he says.
8. Call of the Mastodon (2006)
Noisey: Why was Call of the Mastodon at the bottom of your list?
Brann Dailor: I guess I just put it there because I just feel like that wasn't fully formed Mastodon yet, and I don't even feel like it was totally fully formed by Remission either. I love that era of us because it's when we first met and there's that spark of this new sound that we have discovered together. That was the album that got us out the door and into our van together and on the road. We were chomping at the bit to get on tour and start playing as a group. That's our demo, basically—The Nine Song Demo is what we initially called it—very imaginative title. We played that thing in basements and in VFW halls. It's pretty wild and crazy.
I see what you're saying, that it's Mastodon but not quite Mastodon, but you can hear where you were heading.
It kind of saved our band, too, this recording. I just was a little bit on the fence about whether or not I wanted to stay in Atlanta. Things weren't, for some reason, going awesome right away. So I was being impatient. I had really just met these guys. And I said, "Listen, we'll record this album and then we'll see." On the second day when we were sitting and listening back, I felt like there was something so special there, that there was no way I could leave it. I said, "I'm not gonna go anywhere, I'm not gonna move to New York. I'm gonna stay here and do this Mastodon thing."
7. The Hunter (2011)
The mood must have been rough for the band. [Guitarist Brent Hinds' brother died in a hunting accident during the making of The Hunter.]
It was tough. It was just hard to concentrate with that record, to be honest with you. It was right when we started really getting into writing for that record, Bill told us he was going to leave and go to rehab. And Brent's brother had just died. And so the state of things, it wasn't really that great, personally. Brent was not in a great spot, mentally.
So the mood was heavy to begin with. To get through that whole time period, we had to keep things, I guess, as light as possible in the practice space. So with a lot of the songs we decided to forgo the concept album. It was almost a backlash against ourselves. We just had done about two years of touring, Crack the Skye and very involved, proggy song structures and really dense writing. And so we just didn't dig a lot deeper past certain songs. With a song like "Blasteroid," we kind of put it all together and it was fun to write and it was fun to play, and we said, "That's it. We're not going to go any further with that song. That one's done. Next song… OK, that one's done." So we tried to not go down any crazy wormholes and get frustrated in the practice space because mentally it just wasn't possible, especially for Brent. We needed it to be a happier place. I still love that record and I could put it at number one if it needed to be.
6. Remission (2002)
I originally thought this was the band's debut, but you're saying that's Call of the Mastodon.
We wrote all these songs together. With the album previous, Call of the Mastodon, that's when we had first just met, just really only a couple months old. While we were on tour and playing basements, we were all the time writing for what would be Remission. So we had a long time with all that material as far as putting it together and poring over it. It's a pretty complex and crazy record, but I think it has some softer, a little more delicate moments in it. It's got the last song, "Elephant Man," and it's got "Trilobite" and "Train Wreck," and it's got some hints where we were maybe headed in the future.
It was super heavy and super ferocious. I still really love it and I think that it definitely, for some people, sort of exploded. It was something new for heavy music. [We were] excited for it to come out, curious how far we could take that next sound, and what we were going to do next.
Did the album help you work through some issues with your sister's death as well?
Yeah, I'm always writing about that. That was the first record that I sat and wrote some actual lyrics for, so that was kind of interesting. I had never really done that before.
5. Once More Round the Sun (2014)
Were there a lot of personal things going on there too?
Yeah, as usual.
It must be hard for you guys to have the success of your records with your family grief and friends' grief.
I guess it always makes its way. After touring for The Hunter, we were writing a lot and we had most of the music down, but we didn't have a lot of the lyrical content. I think January 4—it was just a few days after the new year—my mom fell off of a chair and had a brain hemorrhage, cracked her skull open and was in a pretty bad [way]; she was in a coma for about a month. So I was basically gone from the recording session and I was in Rochester in the intensive care unit, and I was writing lyrics.
Does that make it tough to revisit, now that you're looking back on it?
No, that's okay. It's alright. Like most people, you can build this cool wall for yourself where you can talk about something very clinically… like my sister's death. I can sit here and talk to you about it, because I've worked on that for so many years. Not being able to speak about something awful but almost like it didn't happen to me. Like I'm talking about it like it happened to somebody else. So that's a good tool to have, I think.
For me, it chronicles that whole time period. It was pretty awful. But by the time I got back to the recording sessions, it was really awesome to have Bill [Kelliher], Brent, and Troy [Sanders] there. We're family. Something that's very special about our band is how close we are and how willing we all are to let each other explore these different big, tragic family situations in each other's music. That's something that I really appreciate about the guys in my band. That really has helped all of us get through our situations that have unfortunately come up during the almost 20 years that we've been in the band together. There's a way to almost change the outcome when you're dealing in the fantastical and when you're in control of the music and the story; you're in control of changing the outcome.
4. Emperor of Sand (2017)
So is this a concept album as well?
This brought us back into the concept realm, which is always fun. It was about cancer, there was a lot of cancer going around—more doom and gloom. But it was a tough couple of years. Troy's wife has gone through breast cancer and Bill's mother was going through brain cancer. And my mom has still been coming back from the brain injury and had all sorts of problems ever since then.
Bill and I would get together in the mornings and talk about the state of doctors and options and different things like that when it comes to our daily conversations over coffee, and then go in the basement and start seeing what was going on riff-wise and recording stuff.
So was recording the album like a refuge for you? Because then you don't have to think about all the shitty stuff, you could just play music.
Definitely. Plus, it's our job to write and record music but it's also something that we also happen to love to do. It's that cliché that most musicians will tell you that their music was there for them in their time of need or whatever. They can at least always do that. It definitely cheers you up when you are not feeling so great and have some horrible circumstances that are staring you in the face, or you have the long, frustrating, get-you-nowhere conversation with a team of doctors. Go down in the basement, and throw some riffs around and feel like you accomplished something and found something great with that frustration.
3. Blood Mountain (2006)
Metal Hammer said Blood Mountain was the best album of 2006. Were you excited about that?
I guess we probably were. I don't remember. I just thought it was a great achievement for us. It was our first album on a major label so we were really, really excited about that. We also knew that we had a lot of naysayers that said we were going to immediately sell out and make this really poppy album, and I think it's really far from that. I think that we went above and beyond to make sure that that wasn't the case. We weren't like, "Oh we need to make this really psychedelic crazy album," but we wanted to, and that's kind of what came out.
With songs like "Bladecatcher" and "Capillarian Crust," it was wild and crazy, and "Siberian Divide" and "Crystal Skull," I feel like some of our best songs are on that album. And "Colony of Birchmen" kind of opened up some doors for us as well. So yeah, I think it was a great major label debut for sure. I don't think we sacrificed any of our imagination. I think we put everything in it. That's what it sounds like to me.
2. Leviathan (2004)
I think that Leviathan really changed everything for the band. It's our first foray into concept albums and the Moby Dick theme. It's one of those albums for us where everything clicked. And I like the imagery. It brought us out of the basements. I guess that's when we started to put our heads above ground a little bit. It was a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-to-work album. We got out, and we worked and worked for that one.
But it did big things for the band. It definitely put us up another notch from where we were with Remission. When we put Remission out we had this kind of underground buzz, as they would say. When Leviathan came out, it was definitely the siren call that we were here to stay, we were the real deal. "Hearts Alive" was the big epic that really let people know that we had more to offer as well, artistically. But we could also write something that was heavy and straightforward like "Blood and Thunder," and have them exist on the same album.
1. Crack the Skye (2009)
I think there's a lot of good growth and transition on here, some Led Zeppelin-y stuff. What do you think about it?
I feel like we got to this whole other place, this whole other level of songwriting and song craftsmanship—a lot of really amazing Brent Hinds moments. I think we all kind of came together on it and, with the help of [producer] Brendan O'Brien, really made something very special that I'm so happy that we have in our catalog. I think it's really just a beautiful piece of art.
I just remember hearing it back for the first time, completed, and just being blown away by it. Like wow, this was so exciting, I couldn't believe we had created it. It was the kind of album that I felt that I wouldn't be embarrassed to play for David Bowie, you know what I mean? That would be the one that I would pick to play for him. I'd be like, "Look, we added something."