White Whale, Holy Grail: Moby Dick and Mastodon's Leviathan
Writing about the White Whale has become my white whale.
You see, my so-called journalistic endeavors have been involved in a torrid love quadrangle with music, film, and literature ever since I first put cyber-text to internet. This doesn't make me unique, as the world wide web continues to exponentially increase the proliferation and critique of "art" by a glut of know-nothing know-it-alls who recycle each other's opinions about pop culture minutiae as they simultaneously become and bring about the death of otaku, but it doesn't mean I'm not obsessed, either.
And obsession is the name of the game.
Anyways, I am of the mind that, while the various outlets I write for each have a certain specificity of subject matter, that doesn't mean I have to keep my darlings completely compartmentalized. Ours is an open relationship, and I encourage the ladies to co-mingle like sexually adventurous sister-wives. I have Twitch for film, LitReactor for books, and sometimes those overlap, but unfortunately I do not have a permanent residence for my musings on the subject of music, specifically that of the metal* variety. And I've got a hankering to write about some Mastodon, goddammit!
Lucky for me, the band wrote a little album called Leviathan, maybe you've heard of it? It's a concept record based on that classic of American literature, Moby Dick. How convenient.
But after boarding the Pequod of this post, I had to settle in for a long voyage of reading, rocking, and research. And postponement (sorry, Dennis). It was a voyage that mirrored the novel's long trudge through whaling history and inaccurate cetology, before the titular behemoth is unleashed (a voyage which this long-winded preamble is also starting to resemble). So skin your eyes, ye mast-headers! The White Whale is almost upon us!
Herman Melville's Moby Dick was first published in 1851, to mixed reviews. It was based in part on accounts of an albino sperm whale called Mocha Dick (the jokes write themselves) who was allegedly stuck full of harpoons like a pin cushion and would attack whaling ships on sight. Melville was already a successful author at the time, but Dick's lackluster reception marked the beginning of a period of decline in his popularity. There wouldn't be a resurgence of interest in his writing until the 1920's, some 30 years later. He is now considered an American master, Moby Dick being his magnum opus, but like many great artists, he went under-appreciated in his lifetime.
Over 150 years after Moby Dick's publication, the Atlanta based metalers known as Mastodon released Leviathan, a ball-crushing bit of sludge loosely based on Melville's epic novel. Before you knew it, 16 year olds who would rather die than read such a dusty tome were professing their love for the 19th century classic. Whether they were being sincere or not is another matter, but at least they were reading, and what they were reading was deemed cool.
Why record a heavy metal record based on a book most people think is a chore to read? Drummer Brann Dailor explains in a 2004 interview with Chronicles of Chaos:
Last summer when we did the headlining shows of the UK, I was in the middle of reading "Moby Dick". We were in London in fact, and I kinda just spouted off why we should choose "Moby Dick" as a guideline of what to write about and what to go for. I was looking up all these passages and reading them to the guys and saying: look, they call Moby Dick the sea-salt mastodon, you know, it's all in here. There are so many different images we can borrow from whaling and just the whole thing as a complete package. I thought it would be really, really cool, and I kinda used Mad Ahab as us being obsessed with, you know, playing music and potentially going down with the whale or whatever, you know what I mean? The whale being the audience, and we just... playing music and touring being such an obsession and just kind of like such a shaky ground 'cause it's heavy metal music, it's really not -- I mean we're all like 30 years old and it's quite possibly, almost definitely, gonna take you nowhere, you know what I mean?
The New York Times expands on the metaphor:
The novel also carried other meanings for the band. Traveling in vans for eight months out of the year, leaving wives and families behind, sleeping four hours a night and hitting the stage still hung over, the four musicians in the band began to feel like sailors before the steam age. And smell like them, as they are quick to point out.
The album isn't wall-to-wall Dick (note to self: consider changing that sentence), but at least half of the songs center around the novel. Let's take a look at some of those tracks, shall we?
Blood and Thunder
A fan favorite to this day, the album opens with Blood and Thunder, a modern day sea chantey bellowed from the first person POV of Captain Ahab. Its lurching chord progressions and swirling drum fills simulate a vessel being tossed about at sea, and offer a window into an erratic mind. Many of the song's lyrics allude directly to Melville's text, especially during the bridge:
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
This ivory leg is what propels me
Harpoons thrust in the sky
Aim directly for his crooked brow
And look him straight in the eye
The phrase 'blood and thunder' originated as a non-religious oath in the 18th century, a sort of promise that 'there will be blood,' but later evolved into a more generic anathema. It is the rally cry of Ahab's obsession, which is summed up nicely in the single line, 'This ivory leg is what propels me.'
I Am Ahab
Despite the first person POV of the title, I Am Ahab is a more abstract representation of the Captain's obsession. It is poetic, almost hopeful, and serves to highlight the flipside of Ahab's manic behavior.
This deceptively simple song also references Paul Romano's full album art for Leviathan (pictured above):
Fascination with a mountain put to sea
This one line is the threshold of an entire discussion on obsession, the metaphor of the White Whale, and 19th Century Japanese art.
Huh? I can't explain it any better than this guy on the Mastodon message board:
...the giant wave on the right is a direct reference to Hokusai's "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" which is said to be about the unrelenting might of nature crashing against an immovable mountain (Mt. Fuji literally and the will of men figuratively).
Compare that to the unbridled obsession of Ahab vs. the indefeatable [sic] Moby Dick. Or is it the whale the unstoppable force of nature and the will of Ahab the immovable mountain?
And you thought metal was for cro-magnon meatheads.
Seabeast is another abstraction based on Melville's story, but does contain some direct references to the book. For example:
Dear Mr. Queequeg you have been informed your life's been saved
You are not a black-hearted vicious mess so it has been claimed
It is possible this is a reference to chapter 110, "Queequeg In His Coffin," in which the tattooed savage comes down with a fever and knocks on death's door like a Jehovah's Witness. But it is more likely a reference to chapter 18, "His Mark," in which captains Peleg and Bildad call his status as a Christian into question.
"Yea," said Captain Bildad in his hollow voice, sticking his head from behind Peleg's, out of the wigwam. "He must show that he's converted. Son of darkness," he added, turning to Queequeg, "art thou at present in communion with any Christian church?"
Even though he makes an appearance in Whaleman's Chapel in chapter 7, a true Christian he is not. Ishmael attempts to cover for Queequeg, claiming the cannibal harpooner is a Deacon in the First Congregational Church, even though he actually worships a small idol named Yojo. The two captains aren't having it. If Queequeg was baptized, they claim, the holy water would have washed the devil's marks (his tattoos) right off his face.
It is only when Queequeg hops into one of the small whale boats and demonstrates his prowess with a harpoon that the captains decide to overlook his religious affiliation.
"Quick, I say, you Bildad, and get the ship's papers. We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats. Look ye, Quohog, we'll give ye the ninetieth lay, and that's more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket."
I'm surprised there aren't more references to Queequeg on the album, because I think guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds has a bit of a crush on him**. I'm not sure exactly when it was, but some time after the release of Leviathan Brent went and got himself a face tattoo of his very own.
"I wanted to get a headdress, Polynesian head dress, in New Zealand," Hinds says. "I grew up with tattooed face dudes. My mom likes it, so that's okay."
Queequeg just so happens to hail from Polynesia, from a fictional Island in the South Pacific called Kokovoko (or Rokovoko, depending which edition of the book you are reading). So one could definitely make the argument that Brent's markings were inspired by the character.
Iron Tusk is an ode to whale killing and the whale killer's implement of choice: the harpoon. An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.
Feel it burst liver and lung
Long and strong
'Til she spills her black blood
Long and strong is Stubb's rallying cry to his oarsmen, a cockswain's encouragement as they pursue the first sperm whale of the voyage. The Masto-dudes even drop the scientific name of the creature later in the song, genus and species: Physeter catodon.
But a special whale requires a special weapon. In chapter 113, "The Forge," Ahab charges the blacksmith, Perth, to craft him a harpoon that will "stick in a whale like his own fin-bone."
"...I fear something, Captain Ahab," says Perth. "Is not this harpoon for the White Whale?"
"For the white fiend!" is the captain's reply. Ahab then calls for the three savages of his crew- Queequeg, Tashtego, and Dagoo- to bleed themselves so the steel can be tempered with human blood. Sadly (and I really shouldn't have to give a SPOILER warning for a 150 year old book), it is not enough to ensure their success.
When one of Stubb's oarsmen is injured, the normally shipbound shipkeeper, Pip, is assigned as his replacement. But the young man has little to no experience, or courage, and jumps out of the boat in fear, causing the men to lose a whale. When he does it a second time, he is left in the drink as the rest of the men are pulled away by the tethered beast. By the time he is rescued, Pip has gone mad from the loneliness of the sea's great expanse, and has begun to hallucinate:
By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.
The song Aqua Dementia details what Pip's vision might have been: a prophecy of the destruction of the earth at the hands of man. Though not deemed so at the time, whaling has become the poster child for humanity's selfish misuse of the planet and her creatures, and Mastodon take what was considered an honest and respectable way of life and turns it into a metaphor for the opposite.
An invitation to clairvoyance
It's hard to stand around and watch while they ignore us
She is dumped on
Used as an ashtray
At the expense of an organized association
Poor whalers. They get such a bum rap.
Goddammit, try as I might, I couldn't seem to find the etymology of the idiomatic expression, "hearts alive." (You have failed me for the last time, Google.) It is a phrase uttered numerous times in Moby Dick, much like "blood and thunder," so is a fitting bookend to both Leviathan and this column.
But unlike "blood and thunder," I feel like this is a positive exclamation. Whereas the phrase "blood and thunder" is borderline blasphemous, "hearts alive" is an affirmation of life. At least in the context of the camaraderie of the whale boat during the hunt. It is therefore ironic that this 13 minute epic is about the sinking of the Pequod and the death of her crew.
Taken down with hearts alive
Our hearts alive
Lurking dark underground
Descend to the bottom
Swim below eternally
Into the deep blue sea
The song begins with the crashing of waves, which gives way to the swirling eddies of arpeggiated guitar. It is not the music of a violent end, but a lullaby to help you drift away in peace- that is, until the crunching riffs and doomed howling kick in. The song alternates between the two for almost 10 minutes, until the outro riff and solo signify the inevitable demise, the whirlpool that drags the Pequod down after 3 long days of pursuit.
And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lancepole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.
But what a way to go- meeting your destiny head on, fueled by purpose, your heart bursting with life- even though you know it inevitably ends in death.
Leviathan is a thundering epic, in the grand tradition of the novel that inspired it. Both are tragic portraits of the immovable mountain of man's obsession that should resonate with thick skulls everywhere. Both are finely crafted pieces of art, and both are metal as fuck. You should take the time to familiarize yourself with both. Just remember to split your lungs with blood and thunder when you see the white whale.
* Metal Sucks, give me a call.
** Which is fitting, considering the homoerotic nature of Queequeg and Ishmael's relationship:
How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other... Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg--a cosy, loving pair.
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