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Expectations are a funny thing. When a new album comes out, quite often much of one's first experience with it is determined before they even slip the record into the player. Whether it is their favourite band and they have been waiting ages for it, or it is an album that is ridiculed and they have been alerted of how bad it apparently is; all of these factors come together to form our expectation of an album, which- obviously based on the quality of the music itself- will greatly sway our response, even after the album is done. Enter Mastodon, a band I have always generally respected, but did not find much to justify the hype with them, even on their progressive opus 'Crack The Skye'. With that in mind, I may not have had the greatest hopes for the new record, let alone the fact that everything I had heard about this in press releases tended to suggest that this was a simplified and even 'dumbed down' version of the band that had shown a lot of promise with their progressive direction. With that in mind, it may be merely my preconception that it was going to be a mediocre-at-best album, but I have found myself incredibly impressed by the reality of Mastodon's new album; 'The Hunter'. While I can definitely see where some of the descriptors were coming from concerning the new direction Mastodon has taken, the angle from which Mastodon sets off here sets the record straight for me. Not only has my feeling that this was going to be a mediocre album been more or less dispelled, but I would not hesitate in calling this the best album Mastodon have done to date.
Before the album was released, there was plenty of news that this was a simplified, 'accessible' version of Mastodon, and that they were turning their backs on the prog rock trends that the last two records had been rooted in, and going for a more straightforward rock sound. This label passes me very much the same way that the way similar-sounding The Mars Volta's album 'Octahedron' was described as their 'acoustic' record. It is certainly not a literal description, and there is much more going on here than what the artists might lead on. Without a doubt, 'The Hunter' is the most eclectic Mastodon album to date; with songs here ranging from vivid psychedelia, to spacey metal, sombre prog rock and a handful of stoner rock. The only thing on 'The Hunter' that has truly lived up to my expectation are the song lengths, which are kept within a comfortable limit. There are no more bombastic epics here like here were on 'Crack The Skye', but the album manages to stay consistently exciting and interesting, thanks in large part to the diversity of the tracks.
Even from the first listen, each of these songs has a different identity from one another; some songs may follow similar paths, but each has a set of ideas that are entirely their own. Mastodon seems to have made an effort here also not to put any like-sounding songs on one after the other. Take the differences between the second track 'Curl Of The Burl', and its successor 'Blasteroid'. The former is a bluesy piece of mid-tempo riff rock that relies on catchy melodies and straightforward structure, whereas 'Blasteroid' takes the listener on a trippy and exciting journey with all the psychedelic twitters entailed. 'Stargasm' continues this string of awesome song names with a much more melancholic sound, a very spacey piece that could have been plucked straight from 'Crack The Skye'. As far as an overlying change of style and pace goes, I would say that Mastodon have more of a psychedelic influence in their sound than ever, although the metal sound has been largely preserved. I find the psychedelic, and more atmosphere-fueled sections of 'The Hunter' to be among the most interesting, although the heavier parts here are a little more hit and miss.
Mastodon's sludgy riff work and distinctive tone are both here, but it works at its best when they are able to find the fine balance between hooks and heaviness. 'Curl Of The Burl' is an example of a song that tends to stray a little too far into hook territory, and probably best exemplifies why I feared 'The Hunter' would sound like. It may be memorable as a track, but there is no depth to it; and even before the first listen is done, I had the impression that there was now a big void in Mastodon's sound. The only two songs that really realize this 'accessible' rock sound are 'Curl', and 'Dry Bone Valley'. Neither gave me much of a rush, and they do feel like what's keeping me from calling 'The Hunter' a masterpiece, because some of the other material on the album makes me want to make that leap. Mastodon have virtually perfected their spacey sound here, best represented by the album's highlight 'Stargasm', and 'The Sparrow', a sombre track that closes the album in classic prog rock tradition; a trippy hymn that builds and lets the listener off on a perfect note. It is a perfect track for this album, because it gives me great motivation to experience the album all over again. I understand full well that many who are first listening to this album are already Mastodon fans, so taking for the fact that I- someone who never cared for them much in the past- am truly digging this album is a great sign for 'The Hunter'. It is not a full step above 'Crack The Skye' in every way, but as the overall musical experience goes, it looks like Mastodon has a new record to outdo with anything they may release in the future.