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Originally published at http://suite101.com
Mastodon has gone through a career evolution that seems to parallel that of Metallica or Queensryche to some extent. Starting out as a sludge metal band vaguely inspired by progressive rock, they have gradually embraced the prog side of things more with time and became slightly more accessible to the masses in the process. But following the release of the massive prog opus known as Crack The Skye, Mastodon has returned to a more basic template and seems to have created their Black Album of sorts. Fortunately the change manages to stay natural and never has the contrived feel that typically comes with such an overhaul.
Some listeners have been quick to compare this album to past efforts such as Remission and Leviathan, but the reality here is that it isn’t too far off from the various tropes that were developed on Crack the Skye. In fact, it seems to go through just about every sort of sound that the band has ever played with and is stripped down in a much different sense than before.
On one hand, the album is very reliant on melody. This can be seen as the album includes several ballads such as the title track and “The Sparrow” that are driven by spacy textures hinted at by past tracks such as “The Czar.” There is also a greater emphasis on vocal performance as songs such as the stoner rock-ish “Curl of the Burl” and “Creature Lives” are made particularly memorable by their sing-a-long leads and atmospheric chants. On the other hand, there is still a good deal of heaviness to be found as the guitars and drums get plenty of chances to shine. There are also a few moments where the vocals get a little harsher such as the screamed chorus on the two and a half minute long “Blasteroid” and the token Scott Kelly showoff on “Spectrelight.”
But like every album before this one, the band manages to sound great through it all and works each element into their sound without having them all feel out of place when stacked against one another. The guitars have that signature watery tone and tidal wave feel while the drums provide plenty of great fills. Unfortunately, the bass still feels rather minimal…
And whether they are aping Peter Gabriel or bringing about a raspier tone, the vocals work pretty well as each member utilizes their voice to great effect. As someone who used to be rather annoyed by the group’s lack of unified vocals, it was great to see them come together so nicely on Crack The Skye and it is quite satisfying to see them keep the momentum up on here.
But like every other successful change of direction, the songwriting is what really makes this album work. The group used to go along with the style before substance stereotype that persists in progressive rock, but this release and the previous one show the band making memorable songs while letting all of their quirks still be prominent. With that said, it can be hard to tell just what makes this album more accessible than before. There is the obvious answer of the songs having two-six minute long durations, but it feels like the previous album had more elaborate hooks than this one does. Many of this album’s choruses are quite simple in their composition and execution and could be construed as being rather bone-headed by some...
If anything, you could say this album is similar to Nevermore’s most recent effort in that it uses the shorter song lengths to make things feel more direct and less like the band is beating around the bush with overly extended segments. There are some songs such as “Creature Lives” that could’ve been made even better with an extra section tacked on but each song generally has all the right elements fall into the right places. And with everything working so well, it is a little hard to get specific tracks firmly established as album highlights. The opening “Black Tongue” is probably the strongest track of the lot thanks to its heavy but still infectious main riff though “Curl of the Burl” was a wise single choice due to its laid back feel and smooth vocal harmonies.
But one of the album’s bigger points of hype is the lyrical theme or lack thereof as this is the first Mastodon album since Remission to not feature a unified concept. Some fans may question this move but it isn’t one of particular concern as the band has always been more about their musical performance. And with there being such titles as “Octopus Has No Friends” and “Bedazzled Fingernails,” it’s safe to say that the band’s surreal themes are still kept intact…
Seeing as how Mastodon is one of those bands that appear to undergo drastic change with each release they put out, it is rather unfair to compare each album that they’ve put out with the ones before it. But at this point and in this reviewer’s opinion, the odds of the band ever topping Crack the Skye are doubtful at best. But that is not to say that The Hunter was made in an effort in top it in the first place. It may have several tropes that were conceived on that effort, but this release goes about using them in a much different way. If Crack the Skye didn’t convert you to the ways of Mastodon, then this one just might be the one to do the trick. It isn’t a masterpiece or the band’s sellout point, but when all is said and done, it’s a collection of some pretty damn good songs.