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Saturday, October 01, 2011

Album Review: Mastodon - The Hunter

Mastodon - The Hunter
2011 Reprise Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Mastodon has now reached a critical point in their careers, not that one would assume it to be the case. Riding high on a major label yet commanding the respect of the underground which gave them flight, Mastodon is still one of the mightiest metal acts of this generation--if not the mightiest.

For a band that has written its own rules, Mastodon finds themselves in a precarious position marketing-wise. Normally no one recording a second indisputable masterpiece as Mastodon did in 2009 with Crack the Skye would have to answer to any powers but their own. Yet, where Mastodon finds themselves as of their fifth album The Hunter is in answer to their label--at least to an extent.

"Curl of the Burl," the first single off of The Hunter, is so atypical of Mastodon one automatically feels the band was compelled to write a straightforward rocking ditty to appease Reprise/Warner Brothers. After all, the megalabel conglomerate has invested a fair chunk into Mastodon and eventually the check comes due. In this case, Mastodon has to pay up with a potential hit single--or at least a sincere attempt at one. "Curl of the Burl" is a rhythmic chugger that takes some getting used to if you're still hung over from the dizzying sludge prog Mastodon has thrown at their listeners from Leviathan on up. "Curl of the Burl" is FM friendly and thus the track has nudged its way through the airwaves. We're happy for Mastodon, but still leery. Motley Crue and Metallica were never the same after FM gobbled them up.

Would we say Mastodon has sold out? Absolutely not. Would we say they've crossed over? Well, at least through the first few tracks of The Hunter we could say they've made a case for mainstream acceptance. Albeit the safe and steady radio hawks are likely going to be tailspun by the time "Stargasm" and "Octopus Has No Friends" start whirling like the Mastodon we know and love.

The sure shot statement about The Hunter, however, is that Mastodon has dipped back into the gargantuan riff structure and prog patterns of Leviathan and replicated them with a veteran's polish. While there's a curious perfection to this Leviathan update, this also permits Mastodon to include occasional sublets of Led Zeppelin (i.e. "Octopus Has No Friends") and Yes ("All the Heavy Lifting"). Hell, we get a blatant though tasty rip on the Steve Miller Band at the beginning of "Creature Lives" with a Lucas-esque THX overhaul of the spacey synth intro to Miller's "Jet Airliner."

While "Black Tongue" retains Mastodon's trademark heavy stamping and note bobbing, there's a hair more musicality to it and therein lies the primary mojo to The Hunter. Hard-edged musicality versus climactic thunder. Safe to say Brent Hinds is snug with his mountain man clean wailing, because The Hunter's songs are tailored for maximum impact yet with enough restraint to let Hinds color them vocally. He is Ozzy-esque on the psychedelic title track, while Hinds, Troy Sanders and Brann Dailor harmonize together on the snakebiting "Dry Gone Valley" to create a gnarly Josh Homme-Layne Staley cadence. Then again, there's no way to describe the band's chuckly yipping on "Creature Lives." Did we honestly foresee this as far back as Remission? Not really.

Speaking of Brann Dailor, the man deserves Drummer of the Year accolades without challenge. Only Dave Lombardo can surpass this cat and yet, Dailor's supreme tommy gun snares, rumbling rolls and perfect floor tom strikes (at double or single beat) offer the metal drumming performance of 2011. Dailor is always money, yet The Hunter might be his comeuppance--as if he already hasn't had it with Leviathan, Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye. No matter how tempered and driven the songs are on The Hunter, be it "Black Tongue," "Blasteroid," "Dry Gone Valley," "Thickening" and "Curl of the Burl," of course, you can count on Brann Dailor to give them all more excitement and flair with his detailed skin work.

If The Hunter has any guilty offenses, it's simply giving their label what they want, which is a shrewdly-focused album still with their massive hooves planted in the scene giving them life. Outside of Slayer, Mastodon is the heaviest act the majors will bank on (almost nobody in the big leagues would sign a band based on the mashing detonation Mastodon dishes on "Spectrelight") but it's to the band's credit they remain progressive artists in the process of keeping their employers happy. They dash "Bedazzled Fingernails" with enough weird electronics to remain heavily quirky, while the gorgeous yet trippy "The Sparrow" still runs as the most accessible tune Mastodon has ever written, "Curl of the Burl" notwithstanding. On "The Sparrow," Mastodon professes to pursue happiness with diligence, and the sludgy guitar solos make their point amidst the song's dreamy swoon.

In the end, The Hunter is another huge success for Mastodon. "Curl of the Burl" is a grower but it is a sign to take note of as Mastodon continues to hammer the metal scene with its prolific might. However, for all the commercial plying Mastodon employs on The Hunter, they respectfully counter it with blazing prog and the occasional bit of nuttiness to prove they still have their metal hearts where they're supposed to be.

Rating: ****


Anonymous said...

Good review.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Much appreciated, friend!

In Absentia Vocalis said...

Not my favorite Mastodon album, but good none the less. And a great review as well.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Thank you kindly, Absentia! Not my favorite, either, but it's a hefty statement when an album may not stand up to previous ones, but still has the capacity to be spectacular.