Mastodon - The Hunter - CD Album Review

Whilst it’s not their all the way through strongest, it’s their most varied and commercially accomplished release to date. Let’s they hope they fair better than Metallica did after their own black album.

rating: 2.5

Start as you mean to go on; or in the case of the good ship Mastodon€™s formative releases through Relapse Records with Lifesblood and Remission (way back in 2001 and 2002 respectively), start where you mean to sail away from (though keep yourself anchored to the start by an extra long chain allowing free sailing further away but maintaining a solid grounding at the start - or some other extravagant metaphor to describe how Mastodon have strayed away from the sound they harnessed at the beginning, but always remained completely themselves). Mastodon have come a long way from their aggressive yet sludgy beginnings on the underground a decade or so ago, showing a growth both musically and in stature within the metal community and even the mainstream. A development from the abrasive yet tar thick sludge metal band that started out at Relapse, by way of epic, concept albums based on classic literature (Leviathan) and their own fantastical creations (Blood Mountain) and with these grander schemes an increasing expansion in melody, progressive arrangements and incorporation of wider musical styles creating a sound all their own (Crack The Skye). And let€™s not forget a signing to a major label (Reprise/Warner Bros) along the way for good measure. From the prehistoric swamplands to far outreaching stars, this tusked behemoth discovered space travel ( I really do apologize for these metaphors). In just ten years (of releases anyhow) Brann Dailor (drums), Brent Hinds (guitar), Bill Kelliher (guitar) and Troy Sanders (bass/lead vocals) have taken themselves from one for the heavy-heads to near bona fide bearded rock stars in the alternative music scene. Each album a step in the direction of a wider appeal, increasing record sales, a growing critical acclaim to match a growing fan base. They€™ve done alright for themselves, and they€™ve done it their way (purists may cry they€™re selling out one step at a time of course). So we have The Hunter; the band€™s fifth album proper and the next step in the journey, the next sail out to sea, that further venture into outer space (insert further hyperbole) etc. Expectations are high. €œI burned out my eyes, I cut off my tongue€ so goes Black Tongue; opening track and the first snippet of this album unleashed before its release. As an opening gambit it bodes well, straight in with a harmonized riff soon followed by some skilful and fill full drum work before Troy€™s patented wail comes in. It€™s a solid album starter and a familiar foundation for the album to build from, if a little reminiscent of The Crystal Skull from Blood Mountain, but less frantic and more groove orientated, packing some catchy vocal work and the flashy lead work come to be expected of Brent and Bill. Curl of the Burl comes in with a new spin of the Mastodon sound, particularly in the guitar tones, more stoner fuzzy and rumbling low, sludgy but groove heavy. A more accessible slant on their heavy ways and it makes sense as the first official single from the album, it€™s an up-tempo groover showing the band€™s latest flare for bigger choruses. Which leads nicely into a Blasteroid, an immediate album highlight, starting off with an impact laden stomp between the standard Mastodon faster/widdly guitar hook it soon kicks into a definite newer vibe for the band, heavy and fuzzy but even more up-tempo than Curl of the Burl, and catchy as hell. For anyone familiar with Torche, they€™d definitely see some similarities here in the guitar sound, riffs and vocals, whether the band themselves have been listening to Torche is entirely up for date, but it€™s a brilliant bit of what could be described sludge-pop (or something equally stupid). Then no sooner than you€™re actually getting happy and positive vibes from a Mastodon song in kicks the harsh screamed chorus €œI wanna drink your fucking blood!€ It€™s not the usual mythical fare, but it€™s a lot of fun in a short, sharp burst. Stargasm settles into a more standard Mastodon affair, with an intro eerily familiar (Sleeping Giant being one example). It€™s a solid song, but that€™s about it really, it kind of goes by on a lull, soft intro into fuzzing, driving riff sections with crashing melodic sections, quite reminiscent of the ones that have gone before in a similar pattern (Seabeast and even sections of Hearts Alive), acting as a collection of those before it. The vocal melody is the strongest aspect of the song. Octopus Has No Friends fares a similar over familiarity featuring a typical Mastodon faster and more widdly almost rollicking hillbilly country licked intro, though dropping into enjoyably time signature verse section spices thing up a bit before dropping into a fairly standard heavy groove slow and low chorus. It€™s got a bit more going for it in the constant changing pace and feel of the song, but it€™s not like they€™ve not done that before, again the riffs, the drums and the vocals are there, but for a band that is always evolving, it feels a little like treading water. Though the heartfelt €œI€™m on my way back home€ is a nice touching change in lyrical flare for the band. It feels like we€™re going the same way initially with All The Heavy Lifting, but in the direction of the faster paced, thrashy and trashy songs they€™ve done, but that scuttling riff is something a little different, a new take, then that chorus kicks in, and it€™s huge €œJust close your eyes, and pretend everything€™s fine.€ Showing off the keen ear and deft delivery for big choruses the band has really brought to fruition on this album, this one particularly. Some have similar feel, like if you took the choruses out and put them together you€™d have one big coherent epic, but they€™re still great choruses where they sit in these songs. Then things slow write down with the title track, a really sombre and touching tribute to guitarist Brent Hinds€™ late brother. It€™s a definite direction change for the band, who have done slower songs before but this is a more heartfelt, melancholy with Brent taking a more lead vocal over Troy. Bothe delivering great vocal performances and melodies, though you€™d swear this was a duet between James Hetfield and the son of Zakk Wylde and Ozzy Osbourne. Some great lead guitar work and an almost serene sadness, it€™s quite the album centrepiece fading out on an organ. Dry Bone Valley bleeds in slowly from The Hunter but soon kicks into a hard rocking affair, it€™s still metal and in some aspects a standard Mastodon romp, but this is definitely a rock song more than anything with some of the albums catchiest vocal work with some almost Josh Homme techniques in certain sections reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age. Oh and some lead work straight out of the 70s. Speaking of which it€™s soon followed up by Thickening, which too starts off with a slow creeping build, perhaps a touch lengthy but it drops a gear than ramps it up into a solid mid-paced sinister groove and again it€™s clear just how much the vocal work and focus on melody and choruses has been built up, this little number seeming to feature at least two separate choruses at work and they€™re corkers, Mastodon getting sexy even; one to listen to €œwith the lights down low.€ Now we€™ve touched upon some 70s rock inflections on the album so far and since the first album, psychedelia and prog have been ever burrowing themselves into the band€™s sound and arrangements, most notably the prog metal work out of Crack the Skye and the band€™s penchant for concept albums and mythic and fantastical lyrical themes. On an album where there has been unusually no concept or theme running through out and with lyrics rarely even dipping toes into the realms of fantasy arrives Creature Lives. It opens out pure Dark Side of the Moon, especially that repeated laugh through the bleeps and squelches of synth of the intro before this fades into the kind of atmospheric 70s prog guitar work you€™d expect to solely be played on Stone Henge. It€™s all fading waves of distortion, Gregorian chants and the fantasy is back lyrically. Whilst the guitar work is impressive and the vocals strong; it all comes off a little bit cheesy and it goes before it€™s really gone anywhere. Then drops Spectrelight and we€™re back with blood and thunder into a trashy and thrashy ditty like the days of old, and with resident guest vocalist Scott Kelly of Neuoris, it would be bound to be. It€™s not the strongest song on the album and it€™s one of the least hook laden on the album if at all, but it€™s a kick to the face and shows Mastodon still like to kill the old way. The album€™s closing one-two starts with Bedazzled Fingernails, a quirky little creature which has got a bit of everything crammed into its three minutes; off kilter lead riffing, slow doomy vocals, heavy fuzz chugging grooves, horror film organ/synth, country metal licks and old school Mastodon vocal melodies. The Sparrow brings things to an atmospheric close, it€™s moody and haunting with good tension and release throughout, but it€™s not their strongest closer. And so goes The Hunter, perhaps the bands most varied and possibly most instant, in some cases, album to date, but what does it all mean? It€™s clear the band are evolving as they always have and delving into new waters, whilst simultaneously treading the same waters a little too closely in some cases, and for the most part it pays off, there are definitely some future classics on here, but I think a few that will be soon left by the way side. Great too, to see the band with a new energy, this album isn€™t over thought and rote out; each song is for the song and its initial burst of inspiration, with the band adding distance to their lyrical horizons. The main thing to take away from this though is the choruses and the vocal work; they€™re shining over the guitar work often hear and that€™s rare for Mastodon, not taking from the guitar work but the vocals here have had their games upped. Showing a band maturing in song writing and most importantly melody writing; a heavy band, because this album is still heavy, comfortable in being accessible. This is a stadium metal album. Many a (lazy) music journo has compared Mastodon to a modern metal Metallica (I€™ll be no different), and it kind of fits; Remission/Kill €˜em All, Leviathan/Ride the Lightning, Blood Mountain/Master of Puppets, Crack the Skye/...And Justice for All (minus bass issues plus more jamming). In which case; this is Mastodon€™s black album. Whilst it€™s not their all the way through strongest, it€™s their most varied and commercially accomplished release to date. Let€™s they hope they fair better than Metallica did after their own black album... Mastodon - The Hunter is available from Monday.
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Life's last protagonist. Wannabe writer. Mediocre Musician. Over-Thinker. Medicine Cabinet. @morganrabbits