Scott Kelly: Mastodon’s Essential Collaborator

Some musicians make music; Scott Kelly creates art. Through his esteemed work with Neurosis, his solo folk releases and the other eclectic projects he’s been a part of (Mirrors for Psychic Warfare, Corrections House, Shrinebuilder, etc.), Kelly sits as a fabled figure at the head table of underground metal. Hell, Decibel’s appreciation of the man behind that apocalyptic roar and life-battered baritone, not to mention some of the most empire-crushing riffs in metal, is legend at this stage.

Mastodon are one of many bands to readily admit that they would not exist without Neurosis. Indeed, the Oakland alchemists’ elemental post-metal is a life source from which Mastodon’s members—Brann Dailor (drums, vocals), Troy Sanders (bass, vocals), Brent Hinds (guitars, vocals), and Bill Kelliher (guitars, vocals)—constantly draw upon. But not only is there mutual admiration between both bands for their respective artistic accomplishments, there’s also deep friendship, particularly between Kelly and Dailor.

Their relationship developed in 1999 when Dailor was touring Europe with Today Is the Day in support of Neurosis. The drummer was going through a very trying time following the suicide of his teenage sister, Skye. He sought solace in the profound emotion of Neurosis’ live music and during the quieter moments, he and Kelly spent plenty of time together. “We had had very similar paths in terms of music and family…” Dailor told Metal Hammer in 2016. “We’d experienced some similar deaths, and it brought us together. We had a lot to talk about.”

In the same interview Dailor expressly confirmed that his chats with Kelly were “the catalyst” for Mastodon’s formation, and a life-bond was forged between the two during that period: “I just remember Scott being an older brother that I really needed at the time. He was like, ‘Man, fuck all this, you should start your own fuckin’ band.’ Sometimes all you need is somebody to step in and say it’s gonna be OK. I always tried to keep Scott within arm’s reach after the tour; I knew he was going to be a special person in my life.”

Mastodon’s way of honoring their prime musical influence was to ask their brother from Neurosis to appear as a guest vocalist on their albums. Their creative relationship didn’t begin until the masterful Leviathan LP in 2004, Mastodon’s second full-length. (“[Scott] missed [2002’s Remission] because it took me a couple of years to work up the courage to ask!” Dailor explained. “Rejection is a pretty popular fear.”) Six albums in following last year’s Emperor of Sand LP, and the trend is still firmly in place. In fact, we would even go so far as to say that as of now, a Mastodon record would be incomplete without Kelly’s stentorian contributions.

So, today, we’ve zoned in on the co-founder of Neurosis’ long-running guest appearances by making a Scott Kelly-fronted Mastodon playlist, which we’ve sequenced so that the six songs flow together in a complimentary fashion. You can listen via our Spotify playlist below, or via the Youtube links provided. One thing you will notice from this playlist is how ingrained in the compositions Kelly is; he is heart and soul and not just another layer thrown on top as ornamentation. Suffering, survival, death, and rebirth are all tackled through metaphors often involving blood, fire, water, earth, and wind—themes familiar to anyone who has spent time immersed within Neurosis’ sacrosanct canon.

Track One: “Crystal Skull” (Blood Mountain, 2006)

A tribal war-drum intro from Dailor beckons a series of hyper-speed riffs that meld prog with thrash metal at the hands of Hinds and Kelliher, as Sanders, on lead vocals, goes in search of crystal. Thundering syncopations give way to piercing leads and counterpoint bass-lines and the tension builds before Through Silver in Blood-esque hellfire and brimstone are unleashed. The imagery is equally dramatic, with Kelly roaring amidst the ear-splitting milieu: “The touch is cold / I tore a path screaming through wind and blood / I will it all, burning deep in my skull!” It’s a show-stealing moment, and the way it sets up a blistering solo from Hinds is highly impactful.

Track Two: “Spectrelight” (The Hunter, 2011)

Death and following your own life-path while you’re on this shitty rock are themes explored during this electric track full of frantic, high-speed rhythms and thrashing riffs together with a mind-boggling tech-metal midsection which precedes Kelly’s elder-god vocal. He breaks “the dawning wretch of silence” with forceful bellows, the song transitioning into Thin Lizzy’s emerald guitar harmonies before circling back with more doom-laden lurches. The chorus, as sung by Sanders, is as simplistic as it is catchy, but it’s the “Trust your own truth” line which resonates the loudest.

Track Three: “Crack the Skye” (Crack the Skye, 2009)

Sludge metal shone through a progressive rock prism creates a dazzling spectacle on Mastodon’s fourth studio album, Crack the Skye, dedicated to the memory of Dailor’s late sister. The dynamic title track sees Dailor and Kelly channel the sorrow of their late-night discussions on grief into a cathartic release. Classic rock licks, melodic prog-metal twists and spacious atmospherics extent to a rousing build early on. Kelly takes on the verses while the Mastodon guys underpin him by channeling Neurosis’ signature sturm und drang. The song reaches for the cosmos during the choruses as the clean vocals of Dailor and Sanders merge, and the propulsive music lifts their hooks star-bound. The give and take between the band and their esteemed guest is stunning to behold here; grace and discipline, aggression and pain crisscross at various stages in widescreen technicolor. The lyrics are also vivid and often reflective—particularly, “The screaming arrows tear through my soul / In the dawn your face is haunting / White ghostly dreams,” which is delivered with gravitas by Kelly, or the desperation-steeped: “Momma, don’t let them take her / Don’t let them take her down / Please tell Lucifer he can’t have this one / Her spirit’s too strong.”

Track Four: “Scorpion Breath” (Emperor of Sand, 2017)

More personal anguish torments “Scorpion Breath,” and Emperor of Sand as a whole, a record created during a very difficult period for Mastodon’s members; Sanders’ wife was battling cancer while Kelliher’s mother sadly passed away from the insidious disease. There isn’t a more fitting vocalist in heavy music to deliver the necessary sentiment required to convey the uncontrollable terror of losing a loved one than Kelly. A brick-sized lump in the throat forms when he sings, “Constantly burying our loves / In the trench of this mysterious despair / It leaves us empty, clawing in.” It’s a relatable, universal pain: the anxiety and fear of terminal illness, radiating outwards like a sour death-rattle. In one way or another, no one is untouched by it.

Track Five: “Aqua Dementia” (Leviathan, 2004)

Kelly’s voice is Old Testament, a deafening proclamation. Thus, he was a perfect fit for an ambitious concept album based on Herman Melville’s literary epic, Moby Dick. He rose from the spray like a multi-limbed sea-monster on “Aqua Dementia,” screaming lines like “And God will watch it burn!” with biblical force. The opening bluegrass-influenced fast-picking and tumultuous riffs and rhythms kick up a whirlpool of dissonance at the beginning. The transitions that follow are equally thrilling to behold and the fill-frenzied drumming is jaw-dropping—it’s easily the most extreme track on this playlist. Dailor fluidly shifts into punkier tempos as Hinds’ adenoidal shrieks contrast with Kelly’s deeper blows in a muscular back and forth. The latter’s final roar on this song fades with the wind and wave as the tide resides.

Track Six: “Diamond in the Witch House” (Once More ‘Round the Sun, 2014)

Once More ‘Round the Sun would be a career peak for a lesser band, but it’s actually the weakest album in Mastodon’s stellar discography. Lurking at the end is this titanic, lumbering, somber doom metal track, the heaviest song on an LP which explores more of the band’s hard-rock influences. The hammering groove is unwavering throughout, the track itself built upon creeping repetition. So while it doesn’t cover much ground structurally—a rarity for Mastodon—its darkness is palpable and centered. Kelly takes the lead vocal slot and his penetrating mantras emerge, dissolve and reappear in sinister fashion, leaving us with this psyche-rattling refrain at the song’s end: “We will return / So deeply harmed / And we will shatter you / And we will shatter you / And we will shatter you…” Prophetic stuff, and a suitable punctuation mark to this playlist!