"If we moved on with another concept album about something super-crazy and psychedelic and ridiculous, and very hard to wrap your head around, it was going to do my head in": How Mastodon changed approach on Curl Of The Burl and The Hunter

Mastodon performing onstage in 2012
(Image credit: Future)

The astral trajectory of Mastodon’s most compositionally OTT album, Crack The Skye, saw the Atlanta quartet fly so close to the sun that it fried them to the point of burn-out. Mastodon’s vision for complex metal, bound by a narrative concept, was becoming an unmanageable burden. Not only was their tour itinerary exhausting, there was no fun anymore, little energy to help rouse the monster riffs for a hike into the green Tolkien-scented pastures of progressive rock. 

As the Crack The Skye album cycle ground to its conclusion, the band had two paths available to them: a hiatus, a sabbatical after which they could dig deep and draft another cinematic album concept; or they could stop by the house, sleep for a week, feed the cat and consider doing an album that would be fun to write, record and play. Mastodon went with the latter.

The Hunter was written from the gut and concept-free. Indulging in their love for '70s FM rock like Steve Miller and B-movie creature features, and hiring a producer from outside metal’s inner circle, Mike Elizondo, Mastodon’s fifth album is an exercise in transposing their dizzying songwriting into accessible, feel-good groove. 

We were all out of elements

Brent Hinds

Yes, the title track and Stargasm are dreamy, expansive compositions, but it’s the likes of Black Tongue and, most of all, the taut swagger of Curl Of The Burl that typify Mastodon’s rediscovered joie de vivre. And besides, with previous elementary muses
fire, land, sea and deep space/time travel all explored, it was a good time to change tack.

“We were all out of elements,” Brent Hinds told this writer in 2012. “I felt that it was a good time. If we moved on with another concept album about something super-crazy and psychedelic and ridiculous, and very hard to wrap your head around, it was going to do my head in. Fuck, I’m tired of being all serious and deep and talking in a quiet voice, explaining mystery to people.

Like all good rock and metal songs, Curl Of The Burl started with riffs. But the writing credit doesn’t lie squarely with Hinds or fellow guitarist Bill Kelliher; it was Mastodon’s supernaturally talented drummer Brann Dailor who brought the chorus riff to the practice room. Mastodon might not have thrashed out every song from beginning to end this time, and Hinds is perhaps the band’s most outspoken creative force, but the writing process was still democratic – as Kelliher said “He’s the main songwriter, I’m a main songwriter, Brann writes a lot... Troy just looks handsome! Haha, no, Troy writes a little bit here and there and he does the brunt of the singing and the playing.”

As soon as The Hunter was tracked and mixed, Mastodon started pulling double shifts in rehearsals. The record company, or rather the biz at large, had already put the squeeze on them; Black Tongue was hastily finished with Kelliher dialling in a lead from his tour bus in France, and it went out first, premiered on YouTube, and Curl Of The Burl was the album’s first single, a minor radio hit, and performed live on David Letterman’s talk show to a TV audience of millions. 

Mastodon had been many things before the release of Curl Of The Burl. They had been heavy, underground, respected, popular – enough to sell out London’s
Roundhouse and affirm themselves as Metallica’s openers of choice – but this time
they were accessible,too, on both sides of the Atlantic. They performed Curl Of
The Burl on the BBC’s Later... With Jools Holland show.

That Morpheus DropTune is the best-sounding octaver I’ve ever played

As anyone who has followed the band since 2002 debut Remission can attest to, it’s quite the achievement to house-train a sound that was founded upon the discordant harshness and Jurassic heft of songs such as Mother Puncher and March Of The Fire Ants. Though, that’s not to say that the melody and clean singing has weakened the Mastodon. 

With the aid of the Morpheus DropTune pedal kicking the rhythm figure down an octave, Curl Of The Burl has plenty of bulk to keep its tracks identifiably Mastodon. “The DropTune pedal is on at the beginning of it,” Kelliher explained. “I didn’t want to keep the pedal on in case it got too muddy. But that Morpheus DropTune is the best-sounding octaver I’ve ever played. It was a guy called Rick Boss, who passed away this year or the year before, he was the guy who used to work at Marshall and then branched out and started his own company, and they started making those pedals.”

For Brent Hinds, Curl Of The Burl was the song that summed up Mastodon’s newfound headspace, one which placed the emphasis on fun, and didn’t sweat the small stuff. And it’s a liberated attitude that makes The Hunter the album where Mastodon felt that it was OK to go with a catchy chorus line or cooky verse hook. 

Troy Sanders really stepped up to the vocal plate and hit a couple of home runs with his vocals,” said Hinds, so excited he put his girlfriend on the phone to say hi to me. “The way of doing this with these guys is to have ridiculous amounts of fun. 

"Brann comes up with the craziest ideas on the planet Earth; the guy’s like the most fun guy in the world. When Brann comes to the practice with shit like that [the Curl Of The Burl riff], I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m so glad that you f***in’ did 20,000 hits of acid when you were younger to make you a much better older person’. I’d rather write some songs, have a good time, play some kick-ass jams, drink some wine, have some weed or whatever, party, have a good time – life’s too short to take everything so seriously."

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.