Mastodon
Once More 'Round the Sun

Despite their ever snowballing popularity, Mastodon has gained their fair share of detractors during the post-Leviathan phase of their career.  The bombastic showmanship and scattershot songwriting of Blood Mountain proved a bit too left field for some listeners, while the tangled prog-rock odyssey of the brilliant Crack the Skye no doubt left some portions of the band’s fan-base a tad confused. However, it was 2011’s The Hunter that drew criticism from many amidst its runaway commercial success, with many unwilling to tolerate the more streamlined, straightforward trajectory and pop-infected hooks of the album. Perhaps I’m in the minority of Mastodon’s long term fan-base, but I actually enjoyed quite a bit of what The Hunter had to offer, despite its uneven moments and dodgy experimentation (“Creature Lives”).  The Hunter’s rock-out attitude and infectious hooks offered a nice contrast following the intricate progressive sprawl of the epic Crack the Skye.

Sixth album Once More ‘Round the Sun’ finds Mastodon continuing to traipse a path of accessibility and skyscraper hooks, however this time around the band has penned a far more consistent, leaner and sinewy batch of trademark tunes, recalling the stronger elements from their Blood Mountain and The Hunter albums especially. The more aggressive, versatile songwriting from the former is coupled with the compact straightforward structures and hook-laden songs of the latter.  Elsewhere much of the band’s signature elements are firmly screwed in place, albeit in shinier ear-friendly terms. While structurally the band is far more predictable these days, the musicianship remains top notch and the proggy elements are still prevalent, if a touch more restrained. Brann Dailor’s busy fills and complex rhythms remain compelling components of the band’s sound; Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds are still a potent guitar duo, while Troy Sanders’ grinding bass provides reliable anchorage and heft.   Although vocally is another divisive aspect of later-era Mastodon, the refined trade-offs are skilfully worked here, offering ample variety and a number of infectious hooks and harmonies.

No doubt Mastodon’s songwriting ambitions have been significantly curtailed when comparing Once More ‘Round the Sun with their conceptual masterpieces, Leviathan and Crack the Skye, but their knack for songcraft and enthusiasm for their art is still very much alive and kicking.  Perhaps their days of making truly adventurous and trailblazing albums are behind them, but Mastodon are certainly not resting on their laurels on Once More ‘Round the Sun. The energy levels are bursting at the seams, while the hooks are as sharp and catchy as ever.

Initially I was underwhelmed by lead single the “High Road”, mostly due to the bright melodic chorus sounding at odds with the heavy chugging verses. However, after multiple listens the chorus has since clicked and now seems to gel with the rest of the song, once more it becomes hard to shake once lodged in the sub-conscious.  The uplifting and ridiculously catchy “The Motherload” and buoyant grooves of “Halloween” are crackling bursts of concentrated energy with huge hooks and killer solos.  Speaking of which, Hinds’ not only produces one of his strongest vocal performances to date, but his solos sizzle with renewed flair and a touch of restraint.  Elsewhere, the title track is a short snappy hard rocker with punkish energy, while Brann Dailor’s emotive “Aunt Lisa” offers a pleasant surprise during its climax, as all-female band The Coathangers provide cheerleader chants to great effect, despite the dumbed down lyrics; “Hey ho, lets fucking go, hey ho, let’s get up and rock n roll!”

The meaty riffs and aggressive turn on “Chimes at Midnight” and “Feast Your Eyes” are a pair of the more thunderous songs the band has penned recently, almost sounding like missing links between Leviathan and Blood Mountain, albeit in polished and refined form.  However, it’s a pair of powerhouse nuggets featured at the center and end of the album that have the potential to reel in the more sceptical listener. Firstly 6:13-minute centrepiece “Asleep in the Deep” arises through a psychedelic haze, built around propulsive rhythms and intricate guitar melodies as it charts an expansive, dreamy journey complete with terrific vocal harmonies and a short but classy solo.

Meanwhile closing track “Diamond in the Witch House” is a dark and sludgy dirge that stands as one of the albums weightiest tunes, featuring a customary and inspired guest appearance from Scott Kelly.  Both songs show that Mastodon are still willing to occasionally stretch their wings compositionally beyond  the safer conventions of their recent material.  Although perhaps there’s not much here that matches the strongest moments from Blood Mountain, Once More ‘Round the Sun is a more consistent offering than either Blood Mountain or The Hunter, with only the vaguely irritating chorus of the otherwise solid “Ember City” sitting awkwardly.

The prog and sludge elements of Mastodon’s signature sound has been watered down, and despite Once More ‘Round the Sun being a stronger effort overall, listeners that couldn’t tolerate The Hunter will likely have similar reservations about this album.  But for the more adaptable listener Mastodon are back in fine form with a cohesive album featuring some of the flat-out catchiest songs of their career.

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Written by Luke Saunders
June 30th, 2014

Comments

  1. Commented by: Staylow

    I’m surprised by how much I like this album, after absolutely hating The Hunter past it’s lead off track. Just to be sure, I went back to give The Hunter another spin and, yup, still not into it. This album feels more like what The Hunter should have been. This will more than likely end up in my top 5 come years end.


  2. Commented by: Gabaghoul

    Same here. I was also leery of the stripped-down first single when I heard it, despite that ear worm chorus, but man, this album delivers. It’s like Foo Fighters meets Leviathan – enjoyable songs with big hooks plus just enough of the proggy weirdness and heft I expect from Mastodon these days. Much more cohesive than The Hunter. Top 5 for me too at this point. Excellent writeup Luke and spot on!


  3. Commented by: jm from nj

    Nothing will compare to Leviathan and Crack the Skye, but everything this band has done, to me, has been great. This included.


  4. Commented by: jtaylor4777

    in some ways this is the first album where mastodon have stood still. it’s full of great riffs and hooks but structurally it can be pretty boring and predictable. obviously it may seem snobby to ask for 10 minute epics every album, but it just gets a bit boring. verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus over and over. they are capable of more.


  5. Commented by: thisblacksession

    “Diamond in the Witch House” is such a stunner, especially that last half, that it might be my favorite Mastodon tune to date. That thing is a monster.


  6. Commented by: thorgod

    Its not metal in any way shape or form but its ok hard rock.


  7. Commented by: paul

    So far, Crack the Skye is the only one of theirs I don’t like. It’s not “progressive,” it’s just drawn out and utterly lacking in good riffs or songs. Maybe that’s what prog has become to most people, but the only time things get good is for the very brief time Scott Kelly shows up.

    The Hunter, while not as good as their material prior to Crack the Skye, was an improvement because it contains SONGS. There are hits and misses, but they stretch their legs and it’s a fun album.

    So far, Once More ‘Round the Sun is…fine. It’s like The Hunter, but with all of the quirky edges sanded down. After a few listens, it hasn’t grown on me and the vocals are by far the most interesting part. It feels safe in a way that even The Hunter never was.


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