Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds bursts out of the control room at the Cabin studio at Dark Horse Recording, his perpetually windswept hair framing a thousand-yard stare.
“I’m recording the last vocal for the album,” he says, pacing to keep his mood revved up.
Behind the wooden door, producer Nick Raskulinecz is listening to the playback of the song, one of the tracks for Mastodon’s forthcoming album.
A few minutes later he pops out and calls “ready,” and Hinds submerges for another round, leaving drummer Brann Dailor in the studio’s lounge watching the 1969 horror film Rosemary’s Baby, an edgy thriller about the arrival of the antichrist.
Dailor explains that psychological horror flicks—including the bloody ax-fest The Shining—have helped fuel the sessions for the album, which is due in June. But so has the Cabin’s bucolic character. Located in Franklin, Tennessee, the studio looks like a dwelling in The Hobbit’s Shire, with its rustic natural wood walls nestled into a verdant hollow bordering a corral. Later, Hinds shows a photo of himself petting a boney old horse.
But as usual, there’s nothing rustic about the new album Mastodon are creating. The Atlanta-based post-metal group’s sixth studio disc promises to be another ambitious soundscape of sharp-elbowed, cascading and orchestral guitars courtesy of Hinds and Bill Kelliher, driven by the locomotive thrust and hairpin meter shifts of Dailor and bassist Troy Sanders.
Together, they work in support of the big, bold, upfront vocal melodies that distinguish Mastodon from most other bands that stake their reputation on whipping up teetering avalanches of heavy, adventurous rock and roll.
Like 2011’s The Hunter, the new disc steps away from the concept album strategy that fueled Mastodon’s first four releases Remission, Leviathan, Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye.
“The songs are loosely based on the personal experiences and traumatic events that happened to each of us, taking the last year of our lives and translating that to a record,” Kelliher says.
Although Hinds says he’s done the lion’s share of the new album’s songwriting and singing, Kelliher also had a heavy hand in the tunes and kick-started the disc when he and Dailor convened in the practice studio he built for the group in Atlanta to begin cutting demos.
Notes Hinds, “This is the first time we recorded an album in its entirety in our practice pad before we went into the studio, and that gave us a vision of where we were really going.”
During the extensive pre-production process, Raskulinecz—who has worked with the Foo Fighters, Evanescence, the Deftones and Danzig—delivered a combination of inspiration and tough love. Kelliher explains, “Nick listened to what we were doing in our studio and said, ‘You’re not ready yet! You’re Mastodon! I want some f---ing Mastodon heaviness! I’m coming back in two weeks and you better be ready.’ And when we were hitting our mark, he would run around the room like a maniac, totally into it.”
The result can certainly be called f---ing Mastodon heaviness, with numbers like “Cold Dark Place” and “Northside Star” delivering a wallop while showing the group’s maturity. This is the second album Kelliher has recorded since becoming sober, and Hinds showed support by not drinking during the sessions.
Dailor, who delivers his first lead vocal in “The Weight,” and Raskulinecz began tracking by themselves at the Cabin in early December. Next came Sanders, followed by the tag team of Hinds and Kelliher.
Both guitarists hauled their road heads and cabinets into the studio and dove into the trove of effects and pedals that lie around the Cabin like rats on a tramp steamer. Key to their work on the album was the Axe-Fx guitar processor, with its ability to emulate hundreds of vintage and modern amps, cabs, stomp boxes and studio effects.
With so many toys on offer, Hinds and Kelliher were inclined to stack up layers of six-strings, but Raskulinecz kept them in check. “Sometimes there would be just our two basic guitar tracks on part of a song, and Nick would say, ‘Okay, that’s done,’ ” Hinds says. “He has a real sense of when it’s necessary to add lots of guitars to beef things up and when spare is already heavy enough.”
Adds Kelliher, “This album is another step in the evolution of our sound. Each of our records have taken us to a different place.”
But Hinds won’t feel he’s necessarily reached that location until he hears the final mixes.
Mastodon had to bolt for an Australian tour right after he finished that last vocal track, and Raskulinecz will be sending the band mixes while they’re Down Under. “I never get that sense of completion until I’ve heard the finals,” Hinds says. “What I’m looking for is what I’m hearing in my head, and you don’t describe that. You have to play the song. You have to actually hear it.”