I have to come clean here, before I go any further, and admit that I’ve never been a big fan of Mastodon. Don’t get me wrong: I do love the band for what they’ve done to the genre. They are one of the more popular metal bands around, in terms of record sales, they get a lot of mainstream exposure (they’re one of the few metal bands to perform on David Letterman’s show) and they seem to have a lot of fans who don’t otherwise listen to metal. And yet, Mastodon has never tried to be mainstream, nor do they follow trends. In that way–and that way alone–they remind me of Tool. Both bands have created a truly unique sound, unlike anything else in rock, yet neither band has ever sold out. Mastodon is all the more impressive, though, because they’ve managed to achieve all this success without much radio airplay, unlike Tool.
Despite all that, I just never could get into their music. This is just my opinion, of course, but Mastodon has just been too “out there” for me. ‘Leviathan,’ their concept album based on the novel ‘Moby-Dick,’ didn’t do it for me, and their next two offerings, 2006’s ‘Blood Mountain’ and 2009’s ‘Crack the Skye,’ were just too experimental and obtuse for these ears. So take this as you will, hardcore Mastodon fans: I love their new album, ‘The Hunter.’
Those worried that Mastodon’s first single, “Curl of the Burl,” a relatively straight forward rocker that actually wouldn’t sound out of place on mainstream rock radio, was going to be indicative of the new album as a whole, take heart: it’s not. In fact, no song on ‘The Hunter’ is representative of the album. This record goes all over the place, from monolithic slabs of primal metal to acid-fried, trippy prog-rock excursions, all anchored by Brann Dailor’s phenomenal drumming. The guy is a force of nature. Eventually, Dailor’s name will be listed among the likes of Neil Peart and Mike Portnoy; he’s that good.
Absent are the twelve-minute epics; the longest song here is only about five-and-a-half minutes long, giving the album a faster pace than previous records. The production on ‘The Hunter’ is amazing too–no longer are the vocals (admittedly, Mastodon’s weakest component) buried deep in the mix. But like I said, this is not Mastodon’s version of Metallica’s “black album.” Yes, ‘The Hunter’ is different than any previous Mastodon album, but it still retains their signature sound, if that makes sense. If it doesn’t, then just listen to it. You won’t be sorry.
Album opener “Black Tongue” lives up to the band’s prehistoric, powerful name, with a massively heavy bass line, courtesy of Troy Sanders, underneath the, ahem, massively heavy guitars. You can really hear the bass on ‘The Hunter,’ which is something you unfortunately can’t say about a lot of metal albums. Oftentimes, it seems that the heavier an album is the less bass you hear.
“Curl of the Burl” is a groovy blast of stoner-rock, but listen closely and you’ll hear handclaps in the mix. I doubt that there are many bands this heavy that could pull that off, but it works here. The interestingly-titled “Octopus Has No Friends” has hints of mid-to-late-1970s Led Zeppelin riffage, and “Spectrelight” is an exercise in brutality, featuring a guest appearance by Neurosis vocalist/guitarist Scott Kelley.
“Creature Lives” is my favorite track here. It’s a spaced-out tune about some sort of swamp monster (I think!). It starts off sounding a bit like “Jet Airplane” by the Steve Miller Band, believe it or not, but veers off on an almost psychedelic tangent. Dailor sings the entire track too, adding to the odd nature of the song.
Mastodon are perfectly content to do their own thing; they are the Tom Clancy of metal: achieving both commercial and critical success without making any sacrifices to their styles in order to increase their popularity. Mastodon just does whatever they like, and fortunately, their growing fan base seems to have no problems with that at all.
As I said, I love this album, but who knows: they could completely reinvent themselves–again!–on their next album. In the meantime, however, Mastodon has just released an album we’ll be hearing about again in a few months, when critics release their annual “best of the year” lists.