Mastodon, Melville, and the War on Iraq

“For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs.” (Melville Moby Dick, 376)

In addition to being one of the greatest metal albums of the 00s and the first coherent expression of the band’s capacity to revolutionise the scene of modern metal, Mastodon’s Leviathan, released in 2004, subtly critiques at one remove the United States’ invasion of and subsequent war on Iraq, begun in March of the previous year. Mediated through Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the album excoriates the monomaniacal hubris behind George W. Bush ‘s reckless warmongering while, through the accumulative weight of their sound, offering a more inclusive and affirmative vision.

While the plot of Moby Dick and Captain Ahab’s interminable quest for the now-proverbial white whale, as well as that famous opening line (you know the one), are probably familiar to everyone, what is probably less well known is that the text may be considered in large part as a stunning riposte to 19th century transcendentalist thought and its dangerous adherence to Emersonian individualism. Moby Dick demonstrates, for all those who were attracted by it, the true madness of Emerson’s notion of absolute individual sovereignty, and its concomitant denigration of any and all forms of social formation. Melville’s Ahab embodies these qualities and more: desperation, resentment, fanaticism, prejudice… An Emersonian ethics based on the will of the true and honest soul is very well in theory, Melville seems to suggest; but what if the hallowed man of action is a stark raving lunatic?

Mastodon’s Leviathan is a concept album which takes Moby Dick as its structuring device. Each of its tracks further elucidate a part or perspective in the chase for the white whale, from the opening track “Blood and Thunder,” which, through the rocking, punishing roar of Mastodon’s now-trademark prog-sludge screams “Split your lungs with blood and thunder / When you see the white whale / Break your backs and crack your oars men / If you wish to prevail… White Whale – Holy Grail” to the closing track “Heart’s Alive” which seems to find Ahab alone at the bottom of the ocean, confronting the reality of his obsession (it is only the battle he craves). Melville’s story of a seemingly endless war, waged against an elusive enemy, driven on by a cracked captain who fully believes in his Emersonian destiny will, of course, have a certain resonance when applied (and played) to the world in the wake of George W. Bush’s (and Dick Cheney’s, and Donald Rumsfeld’s) ill-fated war on Iraq. Bush’s bellicose rhetoric in the lead up to the invasion in particular seems to echo Ahab’s scape-goating and tendency to conduct every negative emotion – fear, hate, pain, sorrow – through the symbol of the whale.

In addition to outlining a condemnation of the war on Iraq, however, Leviathan, like Moby Dick before it, proffers an inclusive and social alternative to the individualist principle which is the focus of its attack. Despite the dangerous lunacy at the helm, the Pequod whaling ship itself functions as a community: inclusive and egalitarian, it progresses. The textures of Mastodon’s particular form of metal, various, vigorous, replete with syncopation and heavy with competing rhythms and musical styles all integrated into the fabric of the album, likewise articulate, through sound, a more inclusive and synthetic vision of (American) life.

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~ by schoolboyerrors on April 17, 2012.

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