Mastodon’s Medium Rarities and the Case of the Curious Compilation
Last month, Mastodon released a compilation to mark the band’s 20th anniversary. But what’s the real story?
Let’s not bury the lede: “Fallen Torches” is the raison d’être of Mastodon’s recently released compilation Medium Rarities. A tribute to the passing of their long-time manager and close friend Nick John, “Fallen Torches” harkens back to the Mastodon of the mid-to-late aughts, mixing spacy melody with frantic fills and legitimately heavy riffing. It sounds something like a forward-looking Blood Mountain b-side, coupling its climactic mega-riff with the more subtle and subdued approach that Mastodon would take in the early ’10s. In that sense, it acts as a sort of fulcrum for the rest of the songs comprising Medium Rarities.
Though the only new song, it draws the rest of the collection into its orbit, providing a connecting node to the varied and seemingly disparate parts. Scott Kelly joins the band for “Fallen Torches,” something he’s done on every LP since Leviathan (2004), adding another sense of legitimacy to what could otherwise feel more like a one-off single. It’s clear that, for Mastodon, this song matters and deserves a proper release. It is both the sonic soul of Medium Rarities and its aesthetic anchor, as a falling, flaming torch emblazons the cover of Medium Rarities, an ever-glowing reminder of the extinguished light of their dear friend. Mastodon has given us a touching tribute, a great song, and beautiful album cover; to that end, Medium Rarities has tremendous merit.
The rest of Medium Rarities is a bit trickier to understand, though the pieces do fit together more concisely than I originally thought. Some Mastodon fans will surely bemoan the absence of pre-Leviathan material (like I will in a couple paragraphs!), but that’s why Call of the Mastodon and The Workhorse Chronicles exist. Plus, Mastodon spared us anything from the 2010 Jonah Hex EP. (One shudders to think…) Notwithstanding the inclusion of live versions of Leviathan classics “Blood and Thunder” and “Iron Tusk,” Medium Rarities is a hodgepodge of songs from the band’s post-Relapsarian age. And I do mean hodgepodge: the 15 tracks that follow “Fallen Torches” are a rag-tag bunch, a jumbled assortment, a patchworked mishmash, a miscellaneous mélange, a salmagundi of live songs, covers, Record Store Day singles, and instrumental variations on recent standards.
As other reviews have noted, it is not entirely clear why the band chose these songs and not others. What’s the organizational principle here? Beyond a proper release for “Fallen Torches,” what is this thing? And why name it what Cattle Decapitation just named their 2018 compilation of demos, rarities, and b-sides? The name makes sense for a band whose whole schtick is eating humans instead of non-human animals. What does a cooking pun have to do with Mastodon? Is this why their YouTube channel has all these cooking videos now? Can I answer any of these questions? Only after you get me one of those sweet aprons.
(As a side note, Medium Rarities is also the name of the 15th disc in Weird Al’s 15-disc boxset from 2017. But that also makes sense: Weird Al has entire albums dedicated to eating!)
To think through the 15 non-“Fallen Torches” tracks on Medium Rarities, it might be best to taxonomize them and treat each group as its own subset. “A Commotion,” the compilation’s second track, comes from the 2012 Record Store Day split with Feist titled Feistodon. “A Commotion” is as enjoyable today as it was 8 years ago, a spirited reimagining of a dark indie-pop track that plays to many of Mastodon’s strengths. The ever-present chugs of the verses, the group vocals and squealing heaviness of the chorus, and the gorgeous pathos of the lead-infused bridge combine to hammer home Mastodon’s creative approach to the song. I’m not sure the same can be said, however, of the other two covers included on Medium Rarities.
“A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” was also released in 2012 (to significantly less fanfare) and is a relatively safe take on a Flaming Lips track. I feel about the Flaming Lips as the Dude feels about the Eagles, so I could do without this cover. Why not swap this with their cover of Melvins’ “The Bit” or ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid”? Or, better yet, dig deep into the vault and include the 2003 cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Emerald” from the American Heritage split 7”! To their credit, I had not previously heard the Flaming Lips cover, so perhaps its inclusion was a little savvier than I think.
The final cover, and the compilation’s penultimate track, Metallica’s “Orion,” comes from Kerrang!’s 2006 tribute to Master of Puppets. Mastodon’s “Orion” isn’t bad by any means, but it suffers from being the 5th of 5 instrumental tracks on Medium Rarities and, as with “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” is relatively straight-forward. Fortunately, the original is so good that a cover by a band as talented as Mastodon is more than serviceable. For a laugh, take a look at who joined Mastodon on that tribute album. Yikes.
Speaking of instrumentals (what a segue!), they make up a third of Medium Rarities. At first blush, I found this off-putting and confounding. After subsequent listens, however, I have seen the light. “Asleep in the Deep” and “Halloween,” both from the psychedelic and potentially underrated Once More ‘Round the Sun, showcase Mastodon’s songwriting abilities. While I do find myself missing the strikingly catchy vocal stylings on “Asleep in the Deep,” both instrumentals have me itching to put on Once More… once more. “Toe to Toes,” the stand-out track from the forgettable 2017 EP Cold Dark Place, also demonstrates Mastodon’s ability to write interesting songs with melody, atmosphere, and narrative.
Each of these three songs has ideas, arcs, temperatures, textures, feelings. You get the sense that Mastodon is proud of these songs as compositions. This rings true, too, for the instrumental version of “Jaguar God,” the final original instrumental song on Medium Rarities and one of Emperor of Sand‘s stand-out cuts. The opening strings, tasteful piano, ascent into unhinged chaos, and corresponding descent back into the hauntingly calm waters of the track’s beginning riffs is a delightful journey.
As a sort of counterbalance to the maturity and seriousness on display in the instrumental versions of these songs, Mastodon includes on Medium Rarities three TV- and movie-related songs. “Atlanta,” released in 2015 as an Adult Swim single, features Gibby Haynes on vocals and is very much a Butthole Surfers-by-way-of-The-Melvins sleaze-rock homage to Mastodon’s hometown. The song is quirky, spazzy, and something I hadn’t heard prior to Medium Rarities; in spirit, it’s not dissimilar from “Cut You Up with a Linoleum Knife,” one of the many stupid songs from 2007’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters.
If you were 20 years old, in college, and in love with both Mastodon and Adult Swim in 2007, exactly as I was in 2007, you thought “Cut You Up…” was nothing short of awesome—an unheralded and giddy collaboration of equally beloved acts. Part of me wants to hate this track in 2020, and while I do find it less charming than I did 13 years ago, it’s still a good bit of fun. Markedly less fun is “White Walker,” a song written for something called Game of Thrones. Apparently it was a big deal on the Home Box Office, but I’ve never seen it. Moody and lumbering, “White Walker” sounds like the blueprint for Phil Anselmo’s new Nola swamp rock band En Minor, which itself sounds like what Ancient VVisdom so desperately wanted yet failed so spectacularly to be. It’s perhaps my least favourite track on the compilation, though it does let Mastodon continue to demonstrate their range.
So: TV and movie songs, instrumental variants, covers, covers of instrumental songs. What’s left? Live tracks! All 5 tracks are available in some form or another on earlier albums Live at the Aragon (2011) and Live at Brixton (2014), but I suspect that these are alternate, earlier versions. In the case of “Circle of Cysquatch,” you can hear Troy announce, “This is a brand new song,” dating this version to at least 2005, while the the other covers do not match up with the versions on the aforementioned live albums. I’m sure CD and LP copies of Medium Rarities state all this information quite clearly, but this is 2020 and I see no indication of an $8 cassette tape release, so there’s no way for me to ever know.
I found myself enjoying the Blood Mountain tracks—“Crystal Skull,” “Capillarian Crest,” and “Circle of Cysquatch”—more than I thought I would given that I think that Blood Mountain is a total mess of an album, an opinion I know will play especially well with readers and doesn’t make me sound like a total crank at all. The other two live tracks, “Blood and Thunder” and “Iron Tusk,” serve as wonderful reminders of just how groundbreaking and exciting Leviathan was and still is. There’s a poignancy, too, in using a version of “Blood and Thunder” that was the closing number of a live set while also closing out Medium Rarities with “Iron Tusk.”
Wait. What’s that? Did someone say, “Play ‘Seabeast’!”? You got it!
In listening to Medium Rarities and poring through Mastodon’s oeuvre, it’s hard to not be surprised at the sheer number of splits, singles, mini CDs, picture discs, 7”s, and 10”s the band has released between full-lengths. Even someone with a bevvy of Mastodon bona fides such as myself (purchased Slick Leg off eBay in high school, has a Mastodon tattoo, knows their best album has always been and always will be Remission, understands that “The Creature Lives” is amazing) was shocked at how much material Mastodon releases in any given year.
Which makes the last few years so odd. 2017 saw the band release a proper full-length (Emperor of Sand), a single (“Toe to Toes”), and an EP (Cold Dark Place), but the only thing between then and now is the 2019 release of their cover of “Stairway to Heaven” (also in tribute to Nick John). Where does Mastodon go from here? Is “Fallen Torches” the way forward or a brief spark? Is either Emperor of Sand or Cold Dark Place the blueprint for what comes next? Have the Mastodongs sufficiently progged the hog or is more psychedelic noodling on the horizon? Are the more straight-forward anthem-pop song structures here to stay? Medium Rarities offers little indication, though it does make quite clear just how many directions Mastodon might take in the future.
So, in the end, what is Medium Rarities? It’s not entirely unfamiliar nor is it entirely rare. It’s not overly surprising but it does contain some unique, unexpected moments. In a sense, it is a free-wheeling testament to the band’s willingness to experiment while also serving as an appropriate homage to their close friend. It is also, perhaps more than anything, a fun excuse to spend some time with a band that has mattered to me since before Mark Zuckerberg ever had the idea to compare Harvard students to farm animals, ushering in the end of the world. For that, it also has tremendous merit.