Mastodon, ‘The Hunter’
Hearing Mastodon’s third full-length album for the first time was akin to running a white hot strip of wire into your ear canal (in the way only a metal fan can really appreciate). 2006’s Blood Mountain was a crackling current of energy, an obtuse concept album that somehow made sense through the technical mastery of Brent Hinds’ and Bill Kelliher’s guitar work, and the utter majesty of its construction. It was, most of all, exciting metal that sounded like it was forging into new and wonderful areas of space. Towering over the pallid crop of metal releases at the time, it signified the definite arrival of the band into the wider and more lucrative territory of the mainstream in a way that reminded many of the devastating cross-over Metallica made with 1991’s The Black Album.
When Mastodon followed up Blood Mountain with 2009’s Crack in the Skye, it divided the band’s followers into old-or-new camps. Traditionalists bemoaned what they saw as bloated, flabby progressivism. New initiates got behind the space-opera sweep of its astral-travelling, wormhole-ridden storyline however, and reveled in the slick production of Brendan O’Brien, which brought into glittering focus the distinct guitar sound that drives Mastodon. Despite its flaws, the album proved a critical and commercial success.
Where can a band go after four albums, three of them consecutive sweeping opuses (Leviathan, Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye ), each release a subtle expansion of its musical toolbox and each one pushing the boundaries of what its audience might tolerate? In short, it can essentialise. Mastodon has emerged from the relative confusion of their last album with a tight set of songs that marries that thunderous assault of their earlier work with the ambitious sonic experimentation of Crack the Skye.
From the outset, ‘Black Tongue’ establishes that Mastodon has lost none of its fury, opening with “I burnt out my eyes, I cut out my tongue / I sealed them with all of the silver / and now I have none” before spewing accusatory venom with “You killed the life / You took the diamond / You killed the vine… Death of the sun”. ‘Curl of the Burl’ reveals itself as fairly traditional heavy rock and is likely to prove the most immediately appealing to new listeners, with a crunchy groove to its rhythm and a killer vocal hook.
Another likely play for the radio, ‘Blasteroid’ rips through a melodic riff and vocal section that proves screamers can sing, before the harmonies suddenly devolve into a demonic howl of “I wanna drink some fucking blood / I wanna break some fucking glass”. ‘Stargasm’ recalls Crack in the Skye’s jangly, baroque guitar complexity throughout, but when Brann Dailor’s drums really kick in under the song’s central riff it sounds like the heaviest thing in the universe – fitting, for a song evocative of two galaxies colliding through each other. While ‘All the Heavy Lifting’ is a crushing lament (“Just close your eyes / and pretend that everything’s fine”), title track and pivot of the album ‘The Hunter’ is a slightly dreary misstep into meditative territory. ‘Dry Bone Valley’ pushes classic metal back into the barrel, though, and ‘Creature Lives’ brings a eerie beauty to the latter end of the album with its song-of-creation feel, before Spectrelight reminds you that you’re in the belly of a beast.
Album closer ‘The Sparrow’ is a little too ineffectual to really bring the album home, but despite this and one or two other unsure moments Mastodon have tightened their sound, sharpened their teeth, and are ready to tear the world a new one.