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A Very Pleasant Surprise - 87%

Twisted_Psychology, August 7th, 2009

Much like how Stratovarius made me rethink my take on them this year with the release of "Polaris," Mastodon's most recent studio effort has given me a new level of appreciation for the once sludgy prog group. I had originally tried getting into them by means of 2004's "Leviathan" but I was put off by inconsistent songwriting that ultimately didn't live up to the album's extrme level of hype (though I really enjoyed "Blood And Thunder") and never had much interest in checking out the next few efforts that soon followed. Ironically enough, the hype that came with this album was what got me interested and I soon bought a copy after hearing one of the songs online before the big release. I can safely that there was a good degree of truth in the hype this time around...

Musically, this may be the band's most ambitious effort to date. For the most part, the heavier aspects and harsher vocals of the band's past have been discarded in favor of more melodic guitar playing and a cleaner vocal performance. I'm still really surprised by how unified the vocals sound on this album in comparison to past albums and can agree with the reviewer who described the singing as like a cross between Peter Gabriel and Ozzy Osbourne. It really helps in defining the band's individual sound and may be helpful in getting the band a wider fanbase. However, there are still a few harsher moments to be found and Neurosis vocalist Scott Kelly lends some particularly angry vocals on the title track. Seriously, this guy has appeared on three albums in a row, why the hell isn't he credited as a band member yet?

Although there are only seven songs, this may also be the band's most complex effort in terms of the songwriting and overall structure. A good variety is present and the songs range from longer epics ("The Czar," "The Last Baron"), heavy rockers ("Quintessence," "Crack the Skye"), and even a few more accessible upbeat tracks ("Oblivion," "Divinations"). I think "The Czar" may be my favorite song on the album and is made interesting by its spacy Pink Floydesque beginning, infectiously echoing vocals, and a cool faster sequence in the middle of the song. The title track is also memorable for its strong heavy/melodic contrasts and I must also give props to "Oblivion" and "Divinations" for getting me into this album in the first place...

Like "Leviathan" and "Blood Mountain" before it, this release is a concept album and has a trippy overall theme. I can't make much out of the story on a line-to-line basis but it has some references relating to wormholes, soul transfers, Rasputin, and the Devil himself. The title track was also apparently inspired by the suicide of a band member's sister and features a few powerful lines ("Please tell Lucifer he can't have this one/Her spirit's too strong/It's written all over your face/I can see the pain/You can make it all go away").

I really hate to make this kind of comparison, but this is the album that Trivium should've made with "The Crusade." It shows a band naturally moving to a more mature songwriting and executing a new sound with class and honesty. I can see a few idiotic fans thinking of this transition as Mastodon "selling out" or "going soft," but that is hardly the case. Definitely worth checking out and possibly one of the top records of 2009. Hell, it's made me think about giving the band's older albums another chance...

Pros:
1) A successful new sound
2) Excellently focused vocals and cool riffs
3) Great songwriting and varied songs
4) Interesting lyrical themes

Cons:
1) Some fans may not like the more melodic sound
2) The drums don't stand out as much as on "Leviathan"

My Current Favorites:
"Oblivion," "Divinations," "Quintessence," "The Czar," and "Crack the Skye"