Mastodon
The Hunter

I’ve been a big Mastodon fan since Remission, but even I have to admit that I was surprised to see Crack the Skye named Time magazine’s #3 album of 2009. Of course, it was a terrific release, full of hypnotic, proggy epics and three of my favorite minutes of metal that year (all packed into “Divinations”), but I didn’t expect that kind of mainstream recognition. And so while it seems doubtful that Crack the Skye was meant to cross over from the underground, Mastodon‘s 5th album is much more suited for the trip. The proggy gloom and lengthy sprawl is mostly gone, replaced by more straightforward writing, some catchy choruses, and more of the outright aggression that the casual part of Mastodon‘s fan base probably missed from Skye.

However, before you cry sellouts, know that The Hunter is still very much a Mastodon album – and that means it’s got plenty of its own experiments and weirdness. It’s just blended into a much sleeker and more streamlined sound. This is shown quite clearly in the one-two punch of opening singles “Black Tongue” and “Curl of the Burl.” “Tongue” is a straight-up throwback to the chuggy snarl and meanness of previous album openers like “Blood and Thunder” or “The Wolf is Loose.” Familiar, but somehow unexciting. “Burl” is much better, and likely to be more controversial – a radio-ready piece of ear-candy that throws together the swagger of Sabotage-era Sabbath with the late-summer twang and groove of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Next up is “Blasteroid,” which combines poppy Foo Fighters vocals and melodic bounce with amusingly violent lyrics, then switches up to a primal scream in the choruses. Don’t know if the borderline grindcore screaming will keep this one off the airwaves, though if any other song (besides “Burl”) deserves widespread attention, it’s the follow-up, “Stargasm.” Ironically, it’s one of the few tracks on The Hunter that really captures the expansive astral gloom of Crack the Skye – a rollicking comet blast that crests to a gorgeous space-rock chorus. One of the best cuts on the album. It also shows just how versatile the Troy Sanders/Brent Hinds vocal tag team has become over the years. They may not rage and bellow as much as they did in the band’s sludgier days, but Hinds’ Ozzy-like croon is in peak form here.

After that, things get a lot more diverse and playful throughout the album’s middle, with varying results. I enjoy the spacey, warbling pop charms of “Octopus Has No Friends,” which brings back the cybervox from Blood Mountain‘s “Circle of the Cysquatch,” but nowhere near as annoying. “Dry Bone Valley” features a groovy Alice in Chains/Corrosion of Conformity chorus and the kind of pummeling, muscular charge we expect from Mastodon. It really shows up the strength of  the band’s more overtly melodic and concise style of writing. However, though “All the Heavy Lifting” and “Thickening” also rock and rage in their verses, the dull and droning choruses just don’t have that same hooky appeal, which makes them more forgettable. I figure if songs like “Burl” and “Octopus” got enjoyable choruses, why not do so for everything here?

I also found the title track to be slightly disappointing – it’s a pensive space-dirge that also recalls parts of Crack the Skye, but despite some impassioned soloing and another hypnotic vocal performance, I found myself wanting to go back and listen to “The Last Baron” again instead. And then there’s “The Creature Lives,” and it’s definitely the weird standout on the album. Over a minute of prog-noise noodling and then something that sounds like Sufjan Stevens covering The Beach Boys and ending with triumphant harmonized aah-aah choirs. Not a bad song by any means, but it’s so different from everything else here that it just stands out as a strange one-off experiment. Also worth noting that it’s the first song completely written and sung by Brann Dailor, so I’m definitely open to hearing more like it in the future, so long as it feels more integrated into the album as a whole.

Luckily, the last three songs end The Hunter on much more solid footing. “Spectrelight” is a balls-out thrash attack with a killer chorus and a guest appearance by Scott Kelly (Neurosis) – another highlight for the album and tonally, a good throwback to the unrestrained fury of classics like “March of the Fire Ants.” Proggy and aggressive follow-up “Bedazzled Fingernails” also sounds more like classic Mastodon, particularly something off Leviathan, and then there’s the haunting album closer “The Sparrow,” a companion piece to the title track.

So overall, I think the experiment/progression is an enjoyable success. There’s a lot of fantastic material here, and I don’t mind the streamlined sound or the friendlier choruses, because a) they’re fun to listen to and b) there’s still a ton of prog texture here and c) it’s all still recognizably Mastodon. Plus it’s, once again, another showpiece for Dailor and his frenzied-octopus drumming. This one will be a lot of fun to see live. And despite a much less unified sound than previous concept epics like Leviathan and Crack the Skye, I also think The Hunter is a much more successful and cohesive album than Blood Mountain, which I felt got weird for weirdness’ sake. This is a much better balance of smooth songwriting and sonic adventurism. I’d be surprised if this turned off any longtime fans – again, because Crack the Skye brought the blood but maybe not always the thunder, and The Hunter brings both.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
October 3rd, 2011

Comments

  1. Commented by: stiffy

    This is a great record. I think it shows how Mastodon have grown and matured. They can write songs now. Good ones at that. As fun as the old material is, the Hunter shows a band ontop of their game.


  2. Commented by: Nick Taxidermy

    no thanks.


  3. Commented by: elguerosinfe

    Mastodon never had a problem with song writing. I like this release, but for long-time fans this is very much Mastodon-light.


  4. Commented by: Jono

    For my two cents….I wasn’t a particular fan of Mastodon before this, even though I knew they had a lot of talent and are somewhat unique. On first impressions Crack the Skye was great but then I forgot about it.

    However, The Hunter is an incredibly solid metal album with wider appeal…and without any disrespect to their past work.

    A cool review. However, in my opinion, while “The Creature Lives” does stand out in style from the rest of the album, bands should be applauded for putting in some diversity. It is catchy as hell. If the whole album was like that then, yes, it would be hard for an established fan to accept it and maybe you could call them sellouts; but it is one track and a lot of fun.

    Time to go and rediscover the back catalog.

    BTW, album cover of the year at least. It is a throw back to Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith. But better.


  5. Commented by: Jeff

    I like the fact that it appeals to a wider audience yet still maintains ties to their past. No band can do that perfectly, but this is as close as a band can get methinks.


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