Mastodon further deviate from metallic fury on ‘The Hunter’

I’ve mentioned many times, both on this site and in my writing elsewhere, that I don’t hold it against a band for changing their sound. As a band gets older, the members do as well, and perhaps what lit their fires when they were younger isn’t as exciting now that they’ve aged. It happens, and I understand it.

Not all bands do this. AC/DC, of course, have been making the same album since Brian Johnson joined the fold, and people lap it up every time. Same goes for Slayer who, with the exception of their mid-90s output, have been doing the straight-on death thrash since their formation. People know what to expect from these bands, and for the most part, they deliver what’s anticipated. Obviously this idea doesn’t work for Mastodon, a band that used to make some fiercely savage sludge metal that bordered on death before making a stunning move to Warner Bros./Reprise after their landmark “Leviathan” album.

Things started to change with Mastodon on their first Warner Bros. release “Blood Mountain,” a record that has some of the band’s trademark savagery but also hinted at them going into a different, more palatable direction. There was more singing, more melody, more intelligible screaming and yowling. It certainly was more approachable than, say, 2002’s “Remission,” but it still was heavy enough to avoid a lot of second-guessing. Then 2009 concept album “Crack the Skye” dropped, and it marked the most significant artistic evolution for the band yet, with way more clean singing, far less growling, and music that bordered closer to psyche hard rock and stoner rock than metal. It also marked the first Mastodon record I didn’t love through and through. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get with it, and even two years later, when I try to approach the thing, I can’t make it through to the end.

This brings us to their new opus “The Hunter,” a structural departure from “Crack the Skye,” in that this is a collection of songs unrelated to one another other than they’re all on the same platter. The album is a tribute to bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders’ brother, who passed away, and the title track is one of the most emotional songs in the band’s catalog. It’s surprisingly tender, not that it’s a ballad (it isn’t), but emotion drips from the thing, proving this band of wackos can be sensitive. We get 13 cuts, the most ever on a Mastodon record, and my guess is if some of these songs get radio airplay, this record could make the band superstars. It’s shockingly catchy, filled with rock hooks, and for listeners who are growing tired of their Foo Fighters or Muse records, they might find bliss on “The Hunter.” And they’ll also probably think this is their version of Burzum or something because the material is more dangerous and harder than what you hear on typical rock radio. “The Hunter” is not bland, I’ll say that.

Now, if you were hoping for the band to go back to their old, punishing, Relapse-era ways, then prepare to be disappointed. There are only fleeting moments of those days on this record, namely the aggressive chorus to “Blasteroid” and the obligatory Scott Kelly (Neurosis) guest spot “Spectrelight,” which is a short explosion of sludge goodness that acts more as a pace changer toward the end of the album. The rest really tests what you can call metal, because I’d label most of it stoner hard rock, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not criticizing them for it, just calling it what it is. And truth be told, there are some really good songs here, from opener “Black Tongue,” that has a song structure that reminds me of “Blood Mountain”; swampy, ZZ Top-esque “Curl of the Burl,” that has a really weird, sort of uncomfortable video and snarky, nasal vox from Brent Hinds; spacey, dreamy “Stargasm,” that has a nice, catchy chorus; “Creature Lives,” that has an opening that sounds suspiciously like Pink Floyd before launching into a cosmic piece sung by drummer Brann Dailor; and closer “The Sparrow,” the furthest the band ever has delved from traditional metal, with a gentle tempo and Beach Boys-like vocal harmonizing. That track might not make a metal fan very happy, but it’s really well done and, most importantly, it sounds good.

There are some clunkers here, such as “Octopus Has No Friends,” “Dry Bone Valley,” and “Thickening” that didn’t interest me a whole lot no matter how many times I heard them. I think trimming these from the list and making them B sides would have made “The Hunter” a trimmer, more effective album, but that’s not the decision they made. So be it. I’m sure other people will like those songs, but I didn’t.

So this all probably sounds pretty positive coming from me, and like I said, “The Hunter” is a good, catchy record that has some strong songwriting. There are hits on this thing, and all those weird predictions that Mastodon would become the new Metallica when they jumped to Warner Bros., this album could justify those claims. This band should blow up into the mainstream right now. But it really isn’t for me. I can identify an album as being pleasurable to hear and having serious potential to put a band over the top and still not really want to spend a lot of time with said music. I don’t fault Mastodon for growing, and if they felt they were stymied by their old style, by all means, they should have gone where they have. They did the right thing for them as musicians. It’s no different than what Opeth just did with “Heritage,” a record I happen to really enjoy. And no, I don’t think Mastodon sold out to Warner Bros. wishes. So let’s not dwell on that silliness. It’s just that I love early Mastodon so much and treasure their first three records (“Remission,” “Leviathan” “Blood Mountain”) to such a significant degree that I can’t get on board where they went with their music.

Mastodon haven’t bastardized themselves like Metallica have, and you still hear some strains of what they were doing in their early days. It’s an evolution, really. Metallica didn’t evolve. They woke up one day and decided to be something different. I give Mastodon a heap of credit for growing as a band and refusing to adhere to boundaries they had matured beyond. I just don’t feel the new Mastodon does anything for me emotionally or spiritually like their old music did. I guess I prefer Mastodon heavier and more explosive, like you think a mountain is about to fall on you or you’re going to be gutted by a rhino. “The Hunter” just isn’t for me, but it wasn’t made for me, was it? Mastodon did this for them, as well they should have. “The Hunter” is bound to be a dust collector on my shelf alongside “Crack the Skye.” Yet, I’ll remain interested in where Mastodon go next, so they haven’t totally lost me.

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