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Almost Striking the Motherload - 85%

Chernobog, February 17th, 2015

While you should never judge a book by it's cover, I think it's safe to say that nine out of ten time you can do so with an album cover, since the cover art of a band's album can tell you a lot about the experience you will undergo by listening to it, especially if it's a metal album. In the case of Atlanta based prog/sludge metal outfit Mastodon, you have a band who have a knack for putting some eye catching cover art on their albums, even if the content inside is spotty at best. "Once More 'Round the Sun" caught my eye with a psychedelic cover that looks as if it was conceived by someone listening to 60s and 70s stoner rock while tripping on Peyote. Why bring this up? Because this here is a fine example of cover art revealing what is in store for the listener. "Once More 'Round the Sun" takes the simpler, more straightforward approach of Mastodon's previous album "The Hunter" and mixes it with their progressive influences, coming up with a sound that resembles the Melvins mixed with Rush or some other progressive rock act.

The strong point on this album are the individual songs and the talents of the musicians pumping the songs out. Mastodon has always been a group of talented musicians, but as songwriters they have always been spotty, largely because their early work consisted of attempts at marrying groove, sludge and progressive metal in ways that made their songs sound horribly chaotic, with the drums sounding like they were playing a completely different song from the what the guitarist was playing, which would be different from the vocals etc. Mastodon have by now mostly figured out how to write songs where all the musicians flow together, and this album is a testament to that. Songs such as "High Road", the title track, "Feast Your Eyes" and "Asleep in the Deep" all follow a straightforward Sabbath inspired approach to the riffs and rhythms, but with lighter, more melodic musical qualities reminiscent of Alex Lifeson's work in Rush adding a sense of variety that keeps this from being mere Sabbath worship with a wild drummer. The guitar solos are all fairly well written, and never sacrifice emotion in exchange for fancy fretwork. The song "Aunt Lisa" even goes so far as to have rather spacey, "Dark Side of the Moon" style sound effects added into the midst of the song to give the song an even greater connection to Mastodon's progressive influences, as if the otherworldly vocal approach (more on that in a bit) and opening riff that calls to mind a creepier version of Rush's "Free Will" wasn't already doing that. Interestingly enough, one of the best songs on the album is the one that sounds as if it was tailor-made to be a single, and that is "The Motherload". This song works very well thanks to a combination of a riff with the right amount of groove, an effective vocal performance and melody, and intricate drum work that doesn't distract from the song the way it has with other Mastodon songs. Brent Hinds pours the right balance of feeling and technical prowess into the guitar solo and the lead guitar has a classic metal-sounding tone that fits perfectly with the quasi-psychedelic approach the band is going with.

That said, this album is certainly not perfect, and part of that has to do with the vocals. If you are unfamiliar with Mastodon, there are two main vocalists, guitarist Brett Hinds and drummer Brann Dailor. Surprisingly, it is the drummer that is the stronger vocalist, largely because he handles melody better than Hinds, who at times sounds dangerously close to Glenn Danzig trying to sing hardcore. Dailor sings melody far better, and gives "The Motherload" and "Ember City" a quality beyond what Hinds could provide. Nonetheless, my complaint is not with the vocal performance (though the more Dailor takes up vocal duties, the better in my opinion) but with how vocals are mixed in. Basically, the vocals can go from anywhere from being placed prominently in the front of the mix (where they are very often given and ethereal atmosphere reminiscent of Pink Floyd) to place in the far back of the mix. This may seem like a minor complaint, but when the vocals in "Feast Your Eyes" would be practically incomprehensible without a lyric sheet, then there's a problem. I'm sure with repeat listening, one's ears would become desensitized to this flaw in production, but it is incredibly noticeable difference when halfway through the album the vocalist suddenly becomes audible.

As with their albums before, Mastodon concocts an intriguing fusion of sludge and progressive metal, but the difference here is that they have managed to add in the more eclectic influences without sacrificing the quality of the songs as a whole. It's been an upward journey for them, and I'm sure there will be those who prefer their earlier work, but "Once More 'Round the Sun" has struck a stronger nerve with me than most of what I've heard from Mastodon before, due in part to their excellent songwriting and clever use of psychedelic influences that never feel too overbearing. Even if you never found yourself enjoying Mastodon's previous work, "Once More "Round the Sun" has enough to offer non-fans who enjoy sludge, prog, or even just good songwriting. I must admit, I was never a big Mastodon fan beyond a few songs, and I found myself enjoying most of this album. It didn't exactly make me a total believer, but should they keep up on this track, their next album might.

Shadow of the Hunter - 63%

Dover, October 22nd, 2014
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Reprise Records

2011 saw Mastodon embark into radio friendly territory with 'The Hunter', sporting shorter, more concise songwriting, and a well rounded approach to balance between aggression and melody. This was a logical step to take after the majestic progressive metal mammoth that is 'Crack the Skye', so the question in all of our heads was: "Was 'The Hunter' just a reaction to 'Crack the Skye', or will they go further on this path now?" The answer appears to be yes, and like 'The Hunter' it's not an entirely bad thing. So the new Mastodon is much more melody driven, much more radio friendly, much less aggressive. Fans of their last album rejoice, those wishing for more 'Crack the Skye' and 'Leviathan' adapt or cry.

The first four songs are similar, using this new psychedelic rock/metal fusion sound so identifiably "Mastodon" now. Laden with grooves and revolving voices in the band, drummer Brann Dailor shines particularly in "The Motherload", and "High Road" sees a nice sludgy sound once more. From here on out the album becomes inconsistent and fairly dull, the songs all sound like rehashes of the same Mastodon ideas we've all heard before, only not as good. Tracks 5, 6, and 7 in particular feel thoroughly done and tired.

Mastodon now is fusing rock cliches and unoriginal melodies with the typical frantic drum work and riffage we associate with Mastodon. There are sometimes brief glitters of badassery, as in both the opening riffs of "Aunt Lisa" and it's outdo ("Hey ho let's fucking go, hey ho let's get up and rock and roll!), and the outro jamming on "Halloween", but all in all these great moments are far and few between on the latter half of the album, making for a very trying and uneven listening experience. Also worth a mention is the obvious King Diamond worship song "Diamond in the Witch House", featuring a moaning Troy Sanders mimicking the King himself, the song is boring, however, like much of the album.

All in all we're treated to a shadow of 'The Hunter', an uneven listening experience seeing the first half of the album explore some really great ideas, but the second half of the album is filled with seemingly half-baked ideas which just don't entertain. This album is really the first Mastodon album I genuinely don't like, and it pains me to say that, as Mastodon is easily one of the rising stars in the metal/rock world.

Highlight tracks: "The Motherload", "Tread Lightly", "High Road"

When the sun rose again. - 92%

Metantoine, June 26th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Reprise Records

The Georgian boys are back with their sixth album already and every single of their releases was a surprise for the listeners and it's no exception this time either. Their evolution towards more progressive realms felt natural and so is their endeavour into more melodic territories.

In 2011, we were offered a very poppy album with the sadly underwhelming The Hunter, an album plagued with too many songs and fillers but with some jewels like the title track or “Stargasm”. I'm sure I wasn't the only person expecting their new one with haste and interest. I've been following the band intensely since the excellent Blood Mountain, an opus created just when I was starting to get into metal and even if my horizons changed after my formative years, Mastodon remains an important band for me and they'll be seen as the most important American metal band of their generation. I remember when I discovered them, I was sixteen and it was the week that I also got Frances the Mute by The Mars Volta, a band that also became one of my favourite. I opened BM's booklet and I thought it was very odd that Cedric Bixler-Zavala (singer of TMV) was featured as a guest. What a fun coincidence, everything happens for a reason! And now, it's time for the first Mastodon full length since the tragic dissolution (some will say hallelujah but to hell with them) of the El Paso prog juggernauts and it's easily a contender for my album of 2014.

After only one listening, I already told myself that the main problem of their previous record was solved. OM'RTS has absolutely no filler whatsoever. Its main strength is its cohesion and unity. The eleven songs for fifty four minutes is perhaps their most balanced album to date. One of the forces of an album like Leviathan was its diversity but it didn't worked as well on Crack the Skye, an album with a great vision ultimately afflicted with an overachieving will. I mean, I liked the long tracks like “The Last Baron” but the album wasn't as close-knitted as this one even though I think it was honourable progressive metal. CTS also had too many members of the band trying their hand at the mic and it felt disjointed at times. While their new opus is definitely their strongest vocally speaking or at least their most accessible. I'm sure the people who were complaining about how the vocals were their weakest quality won't find much material to complain about here. Sanders (who's obviously Mastodon's best singer) and Hinds are prevalent but they seem harder to differentiate this time around or maybe it was so well constructed that it isn't apparent.Their deliveries are mostly clean but rough and they're simply better at the game, they know their forces and explore them. The choruses are powerful and the use of ethereal, atmospheric but grasping vocals enhance the whole experience

Lyrically speaking, it's not as special as CTS or weird like The Hunter, it doesn't seem conceptual this time around (perhaps for the better since they'll be repeating themselves and that's counterproductive.) The lyrics are still deeply personal and metaphorical and they flow very well. It's kind of giving me a contemplative vibe that goes hand in hand with the rock influences they're incorporating this time around, you can easily hear the love they have for Deftones and Alice in Chains and I have no problem with that!

It goes without saying but don't expect Mastodon to go back to their sludgey roots on this album, it's perhaps heavier than The Hunter or maybe I think it is since it's not as joyful. It's sort of a return to a math-esque sound not so present on their two latest albums and it delivers immense heavy riffs as well (such as the great epic closer “Diamond in the Witch House” with “surprise” guest vocals from Neurosis' Scott Kelly.) Of course, a Mastodon album wouldn't be complete with other guests, this time the all girls punk band The Coat Hangers from their local city of Atlanta are featured on the fun “Aunt Lisa” with girly, shouted vocals adding a juvenile feel to the track.

Hinds and Kelliher (massive guitarists for sure) are not quite as inclined to show off their lead guitar skills as they were before but they let loose some tasty leads like on the single “High Road”. Throughout the album, they prove once again that they're modern metal's most accomplish guitar duo. They have their own distinctive approach and alongside Dailor's inventive, intense and intelligent drumming, it's part of Mastodon's signature sound. It's full of blistering and smart riffs intertwined with groovy rhytmns played wonderfully showcasing that they're one of the proudest Rush disciples of the new millenium. Mastodon has always been a technical band but I truly believe that it never was a burden to their compositions, quite the opposite.

Indeed, it's progressive & technical but without giving up one iota of melodic might. “Tread Lightly”, the opening song, is the perfect example with its sweeping leads and its catchy vocal patterns. They learned of their gigantic progressive voyage with CTS but played a more subdued card on OM'RTS and still managed to craft an impressive and original record. Proof that sometimes less is more. Nevertheless, this album is fucking intricate and rich and it's just doesn't try to be too creative or pop, it just is. It's like they accepted the fact that they were going in a poppier direction, that's a direct continuation of The Hunter which can be seen as a transition album since the formula & the quality weren't quite there yet.

It really feels like Mastodon took the better songwriting of The Hunter and mixed the idiosyncratic power from their other albums with it. Someone might dislike Mastodon for a bunch of reasons (their immense popularity, their beards, the fact they moved on from extreme metal and so on...) but no one can say that they sound like another band. If a bunch of hipsters try to mimic them, they'll strike again with a new, fresh record and the kids will have to update their sound once again. They're reinventing themselves after each record and for most bands, this prowess would be disastrous but not with these fabulous and silly hairy homo sapiens sapiens.

It's without a doubt their best album since Blood Mountain and it helps building an important, almost faultless legacy for the band. I had low expectations after their previous album and this was a pleasant surprise. Highly recommended for fans of adventurous, catchy prog metal with a flair for originality. Mastodon are still on the rise and there's no way to stoptheir progression. In time, you will join them in the sun, In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.

Metantoine's Magickal Realm