The Critical Mass

Mastodon. It’s life.

Hard work, and a creative urgency to push the envelope of metal. Mastodon, which features two guys who came of age on the Rochester music scene in the 1990s, won a Grammy at Sunday night’s 60th annual awards.

It takes perseverance in tough times, as well.

Mastodon’s song “Sultan’s Curse” was awarded for Best Metal Performance in a Sunday-afternoon ceremony before the evening’s main event at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Mastodon’s Emperor of Sand was also nominated for Best Rock Album, but that award went to The War on Drugs for A Deeper Understanding.

Mastodon drummer and singer Brann Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher both played in Lethargy and Butterslax, eccentric metal bands that were very active on the Rochester scene. Then 18 years ago they moved to Atlanta, met vocalist and guitarist Brett Hinds and vocalist/bassist Troy Sanders, and created Mastodon, generally hailed as one of the best of today’s metal bands.

Today’s metal stands on broad shoulders. “Thank you to Judas Priest and Black Sabbath for creating this kind of music that we call home,” Dailor said in accepting the Grammy on Sunday.

“We’d like to thank our fans especially for putting us up here where we are today,” Kelliher said.

“Sultan’s Curse” is the fourth time a Mastodon song has been nominated for a Grammy, following Best Metal Performance in 2007 for “Colony of Birchmen” and 2015 for “High Road,” and 2012 for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance for “Curl of the Burl.”

About persevering those tough times. Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Dailor’s mother underwent chemotherapy in a 40-year, on-and-off battle with cancer. The band’s 2009 album Crack the Skye referenced Dailor’s sister, Skye, who committed suicide in 1990. Kelliher’s mother developed a brain tumor, from which she later died.

Through it all, Kelliher nearly drank himself to death. He was partying so hard, he had to be hospitalized after his liver started shutting down.

It’s life, Kelliher told me the last time I talked with him, in 2015, when I was working for the daily newspaper in Rochester. “Today’s been one year of sobriety for me. It’s been a struggle for many years. Everyone tells me the first year is the most difficult, when you’ve been an alcoholic most of your life.

“Being sober, I could hold it together when I saw my mom that first day, in a kind of vegetative state. My brother was losing it and I just told myself, ‘I’ve gotta stay strong.’ We’re only here for so long. For me it was a choice when I gave up the booze. I didn’t have to be that guy who needs a depressant to cope with life.”

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