How exactly does one go about following up a series of four concept albums on each of the elements, one of which was a loose adaptation of Moby Dick and the last three of which have sold in excess of 100,000 copies? If you’re Mastodon, it means letting loose and generally fucking around a bunch for that archetypal back-to-basics record, of course. Even as the term has devolved into little more than a trite press release buzzword in recent years, employed by everyone from Kylie Minogue, Metallica and a 30-years-washed-up Zombies to imply a big, shocking departure/return to form, it isn’t unheard of for an act to revert to their old ways for their best work in years.
In many ways though, The Hunter is very much a back-to-basics album, Mastodon’s most forward-thinking record yet that reprises the punchy force and (relatively) short track lengths of their 2004 opus Leviathan, while retaining many of the increasingly divergent qualities they’ve picked up along the way to album number five. Not that they’ve been around long enough to warrant cries for a return to form – and few wouldn’t argue that their last two records have been their best – but freed from the confines of elements and concept albums, Mastodon sounds fresher than ever. Single “The Curl of the Burl” opens to Brent Hinds’ snarl of “I killed a man ’cause he killed my goat, I put my hands around his throat!”, while the brutal “Bedazzled Fingernails” offers up another hilarious reminder that metal too can have a sense of humor (the band has previously scored Jonah Hex and written songs for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie).
Any fears that Mastodon’s running out of elements to conceptualize would result in a weak, unfocused effort this time around are soundly put to rest a few seconds into “Black Tongue”, when that savage riff comes in for the first time. And that’s just track one. Perhaps Mastodon’s greatest asset as a band is their adaptability. Their ability to integrate an ever-expanding variety of influences and styles into their repertoire while balancing their raw technicality with their flair for the ambitious has made them one of the most highly regarded metal bands in the world. Indeed, Mastodon almost absorbs the qualities of each element as they recorded under its respective, drawing on sludgy, molten fury on 2006’s Blood Mountain, unofficially hailed by fans as the band’s ode to fire, and stretching their craft into epic, proggy, almost ethereal soundscapes on 2009’s Crack the Skye.
The most noted departure here is one that’s sure to rile up a fair amount of Mastodon’s fanbase, the near-total inclusion of clean, sung vocals. Mastodon has long expressed their favoring of classic rock and sludge heroes the Melvins, ZZ Top, and Thin Lizzy over the extreme metal they often share stages with, but never before have their stylistic leanings been this evident. The spaced-out “Stargasm”, on which Neurosis’ Scott Kelly lends Mastodon his vocals for the third straight album, recalls Crack the Skye in its eerie synthesizer touches, while the heavily vocoded vocal part on “Octopus Has No Friends”– a track much more somber than its jokey title lets on – will come as a surprise to most.
It isn’t until The Hunter‘s awesome midsection, though, that Mastodon fully hits their stride. In less than 10 minutes, the band creates the two best tracks of their career, encapsulating everything they do best between “All the Heavy Lifting” and “The Hunter”. Opening to a typically ferocious lead part courtesy of Brett Hinds, the band moves from Remission‘s urgent pounding and Leviathan‘s mighty riffage to Blood Mountain‘s technical battery before breaking into the sort of huge, heartfelt chorus they wouldn’t have dared attempt before Crack the Skye, conjuring up every bit of the awesome poignancy they managed on yester-album’s highest points – and in under five minutes to boot. The Hunter‘s title track is the album’s most solemn, dedicated to Hinds’ recently deceased brother. A delicately fingerpicked intro gives way to an expansive soundscape that, more than anywhere else on The Hunter, brings the band’s mastery of dynamics to the surface before culminating in a pair of colossal solos that are among the most intense Hinds has ever ripped. Prepare to be hunted.
Essential Tracks: “All the Heavy Lifting”, “the Hunter”, “Black Tongue”