The band is revered in metal circles for all the typical reasons and a few outstanding ones. Fans freak out over Brent Hinds' and Bill Kelliher's guitar riffing, of course. YouTube is full of adoring imitators who record themselves in their bedrooms. The same tribute is offered to Brann Dailor, a drummer who sounds like at least two. Bassist Troy Sanders is remarkable for his ability to navigate the band's furious songs with clear, concise lines. So Mastodon -- like a good metal band should -- blows minds with sheer technical ability.
But there's more there than mere chops. They have a restless urge to genre-hop stemming from an artistic urge deeper than the desire to show off. Like legendary punk innovators The Minutemen, Mastodon views its genre as a license, an opportunity to explore musical ideas with maximum aggression, not a group of stylistic conventions. So they serve jazz rhythms nobody ordered. They build crazy, mathematical momentum that suddenly shatters into soaring vocal harmonies. They make ghostly anthems with a warped sense of melody. While refusing metal's stereotypes, Mastodon capitalizes on its archetypes -- pace, force and anger -- to elevate the genre. At once, they are back-to-basics and forward-thinking.
Mastodon's musical experimentalism lends a vaguely intellectual air with literary pretensions unheard of in metal. Their most famous album, Leviathan, retells the story of Moby Dick with song titles like "I Am Ahab," "Seabeast" and "Iron Tusk." Their most recent, Blood Mountain, elaborates an original myth wherein Mastodon's members scale a treacherous mountain in order to find crystal skulls. Both albums focus on the struggle of the seeker/hunter, the difficulty of maintaining deadly focus in the face of multifarious sabotage.
In both albums, characters forget what they are fighting for -- they hallucinate, regain their faculties and eventually face their foes with new resolve. There are few bands in any genre that make concept albums with Mastodon's level of craftsmanship, but in the realm of metal they stand alone.
At this point in their career, each album is a new plateau. As long as its members stay inspired, there is really no telling how good Mastodon will get. Even people who don't like metal can't dismiss anything so lofty, so uncompromising, so oblivious to the common denominator.
Mastodon with Priestess at the Big Easy on Tuesday, March 27, at 8 pm. $10. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.