without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
If I wanted to be a dick, I could have simply given The Hunter a pass-fail grade on each song, based it on lasting enjoyability, calculated the mean, and given Mastodon somewhere around a 38% on what is its fifth and arguably most disappointing full-length to date. Although I stand by the above claim, both Mastodon and The Hunter deserve to be given more credit post-Crack The Skye taking us all by storm in 2009. It's always a bit easier to pinpoint a specific "transition" album in any band's discography after that band has released a number of albums. In retrospect, songs that may have once seemed like blemishes turn out to be the origins of brilliant and innovative ideas for future recordings. More likely than not, we are observing a case of that here. Skeptics were quick to assume that The Hunter may have only consisted of quickly thrown-together Crack The Skye b-sides dedicated to getting Mastodon more radio plays and commercial popularity. (I include myself in this category of misanthropes.) After listening more intently, I can almost guarantee that this is not the case; but this indestructible four-piece is certainly going to have to spend some time back at the ol' drawing board if they want this album to become as acceptable as Blood Mountain did as soon as Crack The Skye was released.
Remission and Crack The Skye serve as two massively solid bookends for the first decade of the band's career. Both of those albums represent the greatest works of a band that helped shape a giant portion of the last ten years in metal. The two albums also play off each other quite nicely: Where one is punishingly heavy, the other is a psychedelic warp zone exploring the deeper side of modern heavy metal. Where Remission's short, powerful songs are far from sounding boringly simplistic, the epics on Crack The Skye come off as anything but pretentious or self-indulgent. The reason why it's important to bring up Mastodon's first and last efforts of the previous decade (other than for convincing you that they are easily the band's two finest albums) is because The Hunter seems to be almost an exact combination of the two. Those familiar with all of the band's works will immediately know why that sounds so bizarre. Truth be told, The Hunter is a complete chore to listen to front to back, and not in the same way most would expect. This mother is so full of hooks, it wouldn't run out of them even if it were a pocketless, one-man fishing operation sailing from Portugal to South America on an inflatable rubber dinghy. The main problem isn't that Hinds' clean vocals ring constantly throughout the entire album, but that the majority of the actual choruses are too simplistic, too repetitive, and very fucking annoying... even to the extent that Clear Channel producers had hard-ons before they even heard the damn thing.
The reason why shorter tracks worked so well on Remission and Leviathan was because they were both super heavy and groovy as hell. "Curl of the Burl," "Blasteroid," "Octopus Has No Friends," "All The Heavy Lifting," and "Thickening" are neither, and will get old very fast. And those aren't the only songs on the album that suck. "The Hunter" would get eaten alive by "The Czar" any day of the week (as it feels like a failed attempt to recreate such a magnificent song), and "Creature Lives" contains over a minute of laughter, followed by vocals that seem like a mix between pop punk and white men singing in a church choir. The point is: If Mastodon is trying to condense the unforgettable trips that are "The Czar" and "The Last Baron" down into four minutes, the band is going to need more than a miracle. Crack The Skye was a true journey into what might be the absolute pinnacle of modern stoner rock. It contained a mere seven songs, yet was almost a full hour in length. The Hunter is only a few minutes longer and contains thirteen tracks, seven of which have already received failing grades. In theory, there isn't anything wrong with music that is easily accessible... that is until it gets caught in your head and you wake up in the middle of the night wanting to erase the memory of "Curl of the Burl" from your brain entirely. (We call this "Ohrwurm" in German.) Disagree? Tell me if you're still listening to the same shitty songs a year from now and I'll reconsider my statements. Thankfully, there are some pretty kickass songs on this record as well, so let's get to those... I promise it's positivity and optimism from here on out.
Although "Black Tongue" is an exciting start for the album, it's songs like "Stargasm" that really leave much to be discovered after the initial couple of listens. Thankfully, the refrain doesn't dull immediately the way it does with so many of the album's other songs. The same goes with "Dry Bone Valley," another track which could have replaced "Oblivion" or "Divinations" on Crack The Skye. The real surprise, however, comes with the The Hunter's closing tracks. Together, the three of them contain every aspect that helped make Mastodon a god among ants in the first place, whether it be the sheer power of "Spectrelight," the unique technicalities and memorable vocals of "Bedazzled Fingernails," or the solemn beauty of "The Sparrow." All are reasons to believe that Mastodon hasn't forgotten its roots and is merely delving into a realm of self-exploration, as opposed to releasing the precursor to the first Load of the 21st century. (Take note that The Hunter may be as important to the coming decade as The Black Album was for the 90s.) Hopeful fans should still be cautious, as Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Maroon 5, 50 Cent[ouch]) is solely credited for the production of this album.
In the past decade, the members of Mastodon set the standard in many different aspects of metal by pushing their creative boundaries to the fullest. Each of the first four full-lengths is a favorite album to a varying crowd of opinionated die-hards. Given the strength of the albums of the Naughties, The Hunter is nowhere near bad enough to completely derail the band's fan base, but it would probably be best if Mastodon remembers the fans who have supported them for the past 10+ years by not botching the set list of the next tour without prior warning. (I'm looking at you, Åkerfeldt.)
Finally, this album comes equipped with some fantastic visual work including the making of the wooden sculpture featured on the front cover and a music video that goes with each song. Although perks like this, working hand-in-hand with showy musicianship, might be enough to keep the munchkins entertained, music lovers are going to require a bit more quality songwriting to walk away from this album with a long-lasting, positive impression. Music alone should be powerful enough to take any listener for a ride, anything else should be strictly supplemental.
Originally written for MetalReview.com