Mastodon – The Hunter (2011)

Posted: September 22, 2011 in Music

When you talk about ‘heavyweights’ in the world of heavy metal, the list almost always includes Atlanta, Georgia’s Mastodon. And with good reason. The quartet’s unique style of sludge/progressive/stoner metal has been melting speakers since 2002, earning the band acclaim from critics and fans alike. With a sound that is insanely heavy, dedicatedly diverse, and powerfully intelligent, it’s easy to see what all the buzz is about. In my opinion, the band has mastered the fuzzy side of progressive metal, leaving the cleaner, more concise stuff to bands like Dream Theater, Into Eternity and Nevermore.

Anytime you start throwing the ‘progressive’ word around, though, you open up the door to interpretation. While I have always enjoyed progressive metal and rock, there are far too many bands that think just by throwing in an odd key signature or often ill-timed keyboard solo they qualify. Worse yet are those bands that establish themselves as progressive acts, then feel they have free reign to implement whatever strangeness they desire along the way – all in the name of ‘prog.’ Both situations confuse fans and segregate them, and the end result is often disastrous. These bands could learn a thing or two from Mastodon.

The Hunter finds the band as relaxed as ever, and continues the trend of each album sounding very little like the last. The early albums were metal glory, then shifted to concept albums about Moby Dick (Leviathan), prog metal finesse (Blood Mountain) and weirdness surrounding Rasputin and a quadriplegic (Crack The Skye). All of their previous work was good, if not excellent, but it was hard to know what to expect leading in to the release of The Hunter. A lot of fans didn’t like – or understand – Crack The Skye, and the next direction was anyone’s guess.

As unexpected as anything, Mastodon has put together the most accessible, ‘normal’ sounding record of anything in their catalog. No oddball concept, no spine-bending progressive overdose, no lyrical journey that requires near-overdose levels of acid to comprehend. Instead, they made a metal album that just may be the best record they’ve ever done.

The advantage of throwing ‘themes’ and ‘concepts’ out the window is that the band has the opportunity to make each song its own, without counting on the blast or hushes of the previous track to support itself along the way. Don’t start thinking that this makes this album boring or scattered – it doesn’t. Instead, we get thirteen individual moments of Mastodon versus one prolonged one.

In fact, I’m of the opinion that by just having a collection of songs, the band sounds louder, heavier, and more intent than ever. Troy Sanders’ vocals and bass licks are clear and powerful, and the combined guitars of Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher are as spirited as ever. Brann Dailor’s drums are maybe a little less complex than in the past, but it doesn’t stop him from putting forth an inspired effort. My first thought when I heard the album wasn’t going to be a 70-minute progressive metal opus was that it would end up falling a bit flat, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Somehow, the band seems MORE focused – albeit relaxed – as they stomp out each and every track here.

As an added treat, the band allows itself to meander from one metal extreme to the other, varying their style from track to track. This, again, wasn’t what I expected, but it somehow still dons the Mastodon cape on every cut. And a heavy cape it is…

I could sit here and give my ‘interpretation’ of every note and every track, but I feel like that would be a disservice to this album. Plus, thinking I know more about what’s going on here than Hinds and company is laughable. Instead, I’m going to hit a few high points (there are no low points) and leave it up to you to buy the album and diagnose it for yourself.

The albums opener – “Black Tongue” – is as heavy as anything the band has ever done. That is until you hear “Spectrelight” later in the disc.

“Curl Of The Burl” has a resonating guitar echo throughout, and hints at a more ‘mainstream’ sound, but it still impresses on every level. The implementation of keyboards gives “Stargasm” a nice spacey feel to it, and “Octopus Has No Friends” shows the band still has their prog-knife sharp and at the ready.

Equal parts precision and energy butt heads in “The Creature Lives,” which takes the band’s classic-rock vibe to new heights with a shroom-induced keyboard intro, and the vocals here are as smart and amazing as it gets. Mastodon even dial up a morose, softer track in “The Hunter” which reminded me a bit of Metallica’s “One” in structure.

My favorite track (since I mandated myself to pick just ‘one’) was the rock radio-friendly “Blasteroid.” It’s not immensely heavy, but for a rock song with a rougher edge, it simply nails it. If nothing else, it proves Mastodon doesn’t need to be overly progressive to produce a great song. I’ll be in the minority, but I would welcome plenty more of these straight-ahead rockers in the future.

So while the ‘concept’ of non-concept may be a bit hard to swallow for die-hard fans, I think Mastodon proved that they can do just about anything. You’d be hard-pressed to find a band more in tune with each other, and this album drills another hole in the belt as not only an accomplishment, but as possibly the most defining album of their legendary career.

9/10

Tracklist:
01 – Black Tongue
02 – Curl Of The Burl
03 – Blasteroid
04 – Stargasm
05 – Octopus Has No Friends
06 – All The Heavy Lifting
07 – The Hunter
08 – Dry Bone Valley
09 – Thickening
10 – Creature Lives
11 – Spectrelight
12 – Bedazzled Fingernails
13 – The Sparrow

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