When Mastodon released their second full-length album Leviathan in 2004, there was nothing else like it in mainstream metal. This certainly put them in a good spot to establish a distinct identity, but it sure confused the ever-loving hell out of me as an adolescent. As someone wholly unfamiliar with sludge metal at the time, the comparisons made by media outlets to Metallica and Iron Maiden seemed disingenuous. I couldn’t really lump them in with the Triviums or Killswitch Engages of the era either due to their spontaneous, jammed out nature. I’ve since come around to the ways of Leviathan but for an album that is frequently hailed as an influential 2000s classic, I still think it’s something of a mixed bag.
No matter how I’ve felt about Mastodon over the years, I’ve always loved their drumming. Boasting a style that somehow crosses Bill Ward’s loose jazziness with Neil Peart’s technical precision, Brann Dailor is one of his generation’s most talented players and this album is the most prominent display of his skills. His off-the-cuff fills and hard-hitting rhythms shape and breathe life into the songs and a keen understanding of dynamics keeps him from completely overshadowing the rest of the band. He goes overboard at times and would understandably tone down his approach on subsequent efforts, but such an unhinged performance is truly something to behold. The guitars manage to hold their own, providing plenty of intricate riffs through a grainy yet watery tone.
Sadly, the vocals are rather underdeveloped in comparison. With duties at the time largely split between bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds, their performances are fairly varied but frequently sound overwhelmed and unconfident. The harsh shouts sound hoarse and come off toothless, especially considering the album’s reliance on ripping sludge, and the clean singing consists of a weird wheeze that is awkwardly endearing. This was also the band’s first album to feature (rely on?) guest vocalists as Clutch’s Neil Fallon bellows the iconic bridge of “Blood and Thunder” and Neurosis’ Scott Kelly trades off on “Aqua Dementia.”
When I was younger, I thought Mastodon desperately needed a dedicated lead singer. The band had started with one whose name is forever in obscurity (Poor Eric Saner) and the void remains noticeable even after they released 2002’s Remission without him. I remember thinking that this Fallon guy could’ve been really good for them and fifteen years later, I still wonder when they’re going to suck it up and have Kelly sing on a full album already. Thankfully the band would go on to drastically overhaul their multi-vocal format, coming together with beautiful results on 2009’s Crack the Skye. It’s a move that has given them a distinct identity yet wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t stuck to their guns, growing pains and all. Maybe sometimes doofuses like me just aren’t worth listening to…
This mixed bag attitude also applies to the album’s songwriting in terms of variety and quality. The tracks are almost evenly divided between abrasive stompers and abstract prog ventures all collected under an appropriately aquatic atmosphere. They are also unified by rather slapdash structuring, resulting in a few off-putting numbers; “Island” has never sat right with me for whatever reason and I will never unhear the direct rips of Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” on “Megalodon.”
That said, you don’t have to dive too deeply to discover the album’s sunken treasures. “Blood and Thunder” has thoroughly earned its iconic status as its transitions ebb and flow in just the right ways and its vocal lines have the perfect amount of shout-along fun. The bludgeoning “Iron Tusk” is the best of the beatdowns thanks to its gruff hook and the quirkier vocals on the haunting “Seabeast” and “Naked Burn” do give them a distinct character. The instrumental “Joseph Merrick” also makes for a calming closer, especially coming off the thirteen minutes of “Hearts Alive.”
For all the bipolar sentiments I hold regarding Leviathan, I could never deny the impact that it has made in 21st-century metal. It was a unique album when it first came out and its influence is absolutely massive in the progressive sludge scene that exponentially expanded in its wake. It has its share of flaws, but the great songs and stellar musicianship are enough to at least offset them. I always saw this album’s potential even at my grumpiest and knowing what Mastodon would later achieve has allowed me to view Leviathan with a fresher, more nuanced perspective. I still can’t quite think of it as Mastodon’s Ride the Lightning or a top tier masterpiece, but I certainly understand why so many do.
“Blood and Thunder”