Mastodon have been, currently are, and (most likely) always will be a bit of an enigma to me. They truly are a band that write their own rules and then follow them as much as possible, yet still deviate in some cases. The band manages to be very mainstream and accesible while maintaining a loyal underground fanbase. Few bands have reached a level of stardom through merely playing the exact kind of music they want to play without “selling out”. For this reason I would like to refer to their take on heavy metal as “Mastodon Metal” because “prog” doesn’t quite describe it (and Mastodon metal is way cooler sounding). You see, Mastodon metal doesn’t really play by rules. When you are in Mastodon and you make Mastodon metal, you have zero limitations, and as long as you get the approval of the rest of Mastodon, then, whatever your contribution to the sound is, becomes Mastodon metal- thus, why none of their albums sound the same.
Many people may disagree with that statement, saying that it’s obvious that Mastodon have “sold out”, which is apparent through their increase in non screamed vocals and trading of heavy sludge riffs for melodies over the years and albums. There are two reasons why I say “balderdash” to this claim of swapping art for money. The first is that Brent Hinds has a face tattoo, which I believe, that if there is a handbook on how to not “sell out”, then face tattoos would be in the first chapter. The second reason is the the same reason why some might say that Mastodon has sold out- The Hunter.
I always do some research when I listen to a new album. I feel to properly enjoy art– or at least to let it serve its purpose unto the listener as intended by the artist– it is good to do your homework. Any context that you can give yourself before experiencing a piece of art will greatly enhance your endurance of the art. Even if its just reading a 3 paragraph band bio, you will automatically put yourself in a better position mentally if you give yourself a bit of context. So, before tackling a review as dense and layered as a new Mastodon album, I read quite a few interviews with the band. The long and short of it is the new full length is void of conceptual album storylines unlike their past efforts and that this is by far their most experimental album yet. “The Hunter” is a direct reaction to the past 2 1/2 years of touring for the last album “Crack the Skye” which was their deepest and most emotional piece yet, and quite frankly- they became tired of it. Mastodon wanted to have fun for once.
This brings us to the review. “The Hunter” is one of the most interesting albums I have come across yet this year. There is a lot of challenging content to be had with this record, almost all of which is very rewarding once you have digested it and then revisited. Definitely not an album to judge of the first, second or even third listen, “The Hunter” is a very complex album that requires effort to fully appreciate, but once you get below the surface and the music becomes a familiar territory, things will begin to make sense in a crazy Mastodon metal sort of way.
Spiralling towers of color, wide open psychadelic fields of mania and abnormality, fluid melodies reciting bizarre myths– these are all things that take place as “The Hunter” washes over you. Some of these tracks are so weird that I am not really sure I have heard anything like them, especially in metal, which is the strongest aspect of the album. The tracks that really explore the abilities of the band members and draw out pure hardened gems of focused creativity from them are where this album shines and the reason why this review ends in as high of a score as it does. The tracks that do not indulge in this quite as much are the albums only folly.
I will get the bad stuff out of the way so I can gush a bit about the traits I like. The main problems of “The Hunter” actually start at the beginning of the album and taper off slowly with each track. There isn’t really a bad song on this album but there are a few skippable ones when compared to the standout cuts. “Black Tongue” and “Curl of the Burl” are both Mastodon on autopilot, the latter being far more guilty of this than the former. With as talented as these guys are, I am pretty sure they could write these songs in their sleep. Is it pure coincidence that these are both singles and radio friendly songs? Since I was not there when Mastodon wrote and recorded them, I cannot say, but I would guess they are a direct result of label pressure. These are still decent songs, mind you, they just pale in comparison to the epic ballads and anthems that come later. Worry not because with each passing track, things get a little better.
Which brings me to the far superior songs. After the rockabilly inspired “Blasteroids” finishes, “Stargasm” begins, which was the first track that made me sit up and pay attention. Full of ambience and spacey melodies, yet far from a “slow song”, this is a very cool tune with a very subtle but effective riff that makes the song. The next few songs are all solid and if I am going to wrap this review up anytime soon, I will unfortunately have to skip over them. “Dry Bone Valley” is the first song in the true “meat” of the album in my opinion. Brann Dailor, one of the best drummers in modern metal, takes the lead vocals on this song and shows that he is truly multitalented. After “Thickening” (another favorite of mine), what I believe is the best song on the whole album plays– “Creature Lives” if I am not mistaken was completely written by Dailor and he provides almost exclusive vocals for it. This song made me do a triple take, and at first I could not decide whether I actually liked it or not, but after many many replays I believe this could be Mastodons best song.
Your first listen of “The Hunter” may have you saying, “what the fuck is this?”, or you may be somewhat underwhelmed and say, “this can’t be it”, so my advice is as follows: through whatever means necessary, acquire this album even if it’s not a perfect 10, then, listen to it many times, take breaks if you have to, but make sure you come back. You will be missing out on some very inventive and unique metal if you disregard Mastodon’s latest offering at first listen.
-Chaz 10/5/2011 4:23 pm