October 1, 2011 by Dan Swinhoe
Mastodon albums have become events to be cherished. And so they should be. Creating four albums based around the concepts of fire, water, earth, a debut e.p. that could shake your house apart, each release having a unique identity and sound and all of them being top-notch (genuine ‘modern classic’ fodder) is no mean feat. If anything, they should be more of an event, there should be druids worshipping their coming and make sacrifices to Rasputin and the Elephant man.
So how do you approach that difficult album number five when you’ve used up all the classical elements? You create an album that encompasses everything that came before it and takes it one step further. And give the songs odd names.
‘The Hunter’ is an odd release. In some ways it’s classic Mastodon, in others it’s the kind of release that you could have never predicted. Everything feels familiar yet oddly different. Take the artwork; gone are the detailed Romano scenes that added so much to the experience, and in its place a devilish three-jawed deer. The song names feel odd too, titles like ‘Black Tongue’ and ‘Creature Lives’ sound akin to titles from ‘Remission’, but ‘Stargasm’, ‘Blastroids’ and ‘Octopus Has No Friends’ are just plain daft.
Being the first album not to have any kind of theme running through it means that the music and lyrics can take left turns and tangents from song to song. The Ten minute multi-faceted sagas are gone, and in their place are more straight ahead rock structured songs. The variety of ideas and approaches are still present, but each song as its own identity and style, independent of the songs before and after it.
Opening with ‘Black Tongue’, and it’s slowed Blood Mountain style, the band then hit with ‘Curl of the Burl’ (A burl being a lump in a bit of wood). It’s a catchy and simplistic number with melodic ‘Ah-ahhhs’ and leaves you stunned not because it’s bad, but because it came from the same band that wrote dirging heavyweight songs like ‘Where Strides The Behemoth’.
The rest of the album follows in the same path. ‘Basteroids’ moves from melodies and air guitar into a hardcore screaming frantic melee. Next ‘Stargasm’ sounds akin to Crack The Skye’s slower moments. It’s scary how a band can move so many songs along with so many different ideas brimming from every orifice and it all sound so effortless. The vocals swing from slow and light to screamed and everything in between, ‘Dry Bone Lifting’ is one of the highlights with its Alice In Chains vocals and grungy riff.
In terms of sound, Crack The Skye is the most prominent. Much of the slower and more melodic moments take the rockier approach one step further. Some fans may be disappointed this isn’t Remission or Leviathan Pt. II, but ‘Spectrelight’ is one of the heaviest tunes the band have done in years and is bound to be a live favourite, as it’s ‘All The Heavy Lifting’ with epic chorus of ‘Just close your eyes!’ There’s plenty songs that ooze heavy riffs and remind you that Mastodon are as metal as the name implies. (It’s easy to be sucked into using stupid metaphors to describe quite how awesome the band can be, and the prize goes to Seattle pi for the use of “packs an adamant wallop” in its review.)
It’s not a perfect release, ‘Creature Lives’ and ‘Bedazzled Fingernails’ take simple melodic approach a bit too far and don’t stand up to the rest of the album, but overall the move towards simpler songs with more radio friendly (dangerous word) leanings never sounds forced, more a natural progression. What is certain is that ‘The Hunter’ stands toe to toe with previous releases and although it might be a difficult release for old-skool fans to accept at first, after a couple of listens is welcomed into the family as warmly as the older material.
For those who are lucky enough to get the deluxe editions, the two tracks on offer show Mastodon have not forgotten how to create a sound so intense it makes you want to Punch your Mother. ‘Deathbound’ was released for the Adult Swim Singles Project, and could easily have been a forgotten track from ‘Blood Mountain’, all aggression and thrashing.
Why ‘The Ruiner’ wasn’t put on the proper release is a mystery. It’s the perfect melding of the more epic, melodic vocals and the relentless dirge of the older songs. Think ‘Iron Tusk’ meets ‘Oblivion’ but better.
Mastodon have always made balancing both undying critical acclaim (both mainstream and underground) and fan loyalty while making monumental shifts with each album look easy. And with ‘The Hunter’ created another record that shows they really are miles ahead of the pack.