Mastodon have never gone the safe route. Herman Melville's Moby Dick, human-eating tree people, Rasputin, Stephen Hawking, wormholes - topics that aren't exactly the stuff of metalhead dreams, but they've all informed the band's ambitious string of concept albums.
And so it comes as a bit of a surprise, on the band's fifth studio release, The Hunter, that the Atlanta-based quartet tackle the concept of...nothing. Or, in other words, anything and everything - wherever their fertile, mind-expanded little minds want to roam. Which, as it turns out, is pretty damn far, indeed, as one listen to the new LP bears out.
While adopting a blissful, scattershot thematic approach, the group - bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds, guitarist Bill Kelliher and drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor - have sharpened their instrumental attack, one which still manages to straddle the line between hardcore, blitzing metal and progressive rock but now does so, in many cases, within the confines of three minute-songs.
Three minutes? Wow, that's pop-tune length! How can any band switch things up so dramatically in such time? Mastodon can, and they do so effortlessly, seamlessly... They play it as it lays, and it's not a sacrifice, it's where the day takes them.
In a further break with tradition, the band, who previously worked with rock stalwarts Brendan O'Brien and Matt Bayles, opted to have Mike Elizondo, whose credits include Eminem and 50 Cent, helm The Hunter - and the results are magnificent. All of the group's mind-melting riffs and rhythms are intact, and if anything, they're magnified, glorified, made somehow more ginormous. It's Mastodon made digestible for the whole world...and the world just might be the better for it.
Mastodon's The Hunter will be released on 26 September (27 September in the US). Here's our track-by-track review.
1. Black Tongue
A dizzying amount of riffs drive this menacing, dazzling opener. The first verse, underpinned by a pile-driving, head-banging rhythm, finds Sanders wailing, "I burned out my eyes/ I cut off my tongue/ I sealed them with all of the silver/ and now I have none." Two minutes in, an epic, cauterizing dual-guitar solo busts out as the drums go free-form. The song ends abruptly - it's a jolt, and no doubt it's intentional. That's one doozy of a beginning.
2. Curl Of The Burl
One of the best titles ever features a king-sized, arena-shaking guitar intro to match. Overall, the song is something of a Cuisinart, blending elements of Ozzy Osbourne, Alice In Chains and Queens Of The Stone Age into a bite-sized morsel. A gorgeous, heavenly bridge section, punctuated by ringing guitar arpeggios, gives way to a searing six-string solo break.
© Cindy Frey, courtesy Warner Brothers Records
Fifteen seconds of battering rhythms plunge us into a dream-like verse, a momentary respite before a punishing chorus, one in which Sanders screams as if he's got his foot - or worse - caught in a bear trap. At the 2:35, Blasteroid is a shorty, but it's stacked with action-packed guitar bursts that serve to further the song's hilarious meaning. And just so you know, it's about a video game that mixes asteroids with hemorrhoids. What's not to love?
According to Brann Dailor, Stargasm is about having sex in space, or the feeling of what that might be like, and after a super slow-mo beginning the song explodes in a warp-speed orgasm of raging guitars that are juxtaposed with Alan Parsons-like vocal treatments amid sci-fi sonic treatments. In a super-cosmic bridge, Sanders sings, "And then we shift into overdrive/ but you're not here/ and your legs and the stars collide/ you're on fire." With that, the band takes off into another dimension of metal splendor.
5. The Octopus Has No Friends
All right, so this might, in fact, be the best title in the Mastodon canon (so far), and it's rightly named, for it sounds as if the entire band is operating with more than a few extra limbs - the jagged guitar parts and drum patterns are multidimensional. The whole song seems to float, riding on its own wave, and even a monstrous, Blue Oyster Cult-like, mid-section guitar pattern can't sink it.
6. All The Heavy Lifting
This baby kicks a donkey's ass from the word go and never lets up until the trippy, prog-rock heaven of a bridge, which is slendiferous with meteors of guitar lines and desperate, faraway vocal melodies. Before that, however, it's a cauldron of roiling rock that does just what the title says. Major stuff.
Troy Sanders (left) and Bill Kelliher (right) on stage with Mastodon, Las Vegas, 2010. © Scott Harrison ./Retna Ltd./Corbis
7. The Hunter
Chiming guitars yield to a crushing wall of churning rhythms, a variation on Metallica's Nothing Else Matters that reveals its own sonic wonders, highlighted by layered, hallucinogenic vocals and a David Gilmouresque guitar solo. This is one big-time achievement, a song that will become a staple of Mastodon's live shows for years to come.
8. Dry Bone Valley
A thick, rich stew of sludge rock - no, that's not a diss - that underpins psychedelic, dissonant vocals. The overall sonic impact will leave you feeling as though you're in a graveyard rather than a desert, and the hair-raising solo is righteously ghoulish. The band's pronounced, intuitive sense of dynamics are downright magical.
9. The Thickening
One of the most confounding works Mastodon has ever produced is also one of its most compelling. After a steady passage of molten, fist-pumping metal, the band dives headfirst into wicked stoner rock. Piercing guitar solos burst through the mix, colliding with the ever-changing rhythmic scheme. Like a ghost in the night, Sanders sings, "Straight out of nowhere/ buried deep in my past/ straight out of nowhere/ hoping you'll be the last." It all drifts off rather chillingly in a ripple of distortion.
10. The Creature Lives
A grand sweep of keyboards ushers in a somber, mid-tempo growler that is startling for the naked, unadorned vocals of Troy Sanders. The entire piece seems to build towards a grandoise arrangement, an earth-mover in which the band works as one unstoppable force. It all ends before you know it, and you're left shaking you're head, wondering what you just heard. What was that giant, lumbering beast? Just push repeat and relive the glory.
Is this the tree that inspired Curl Of The Burl? Maston are (left to right) Brann Dailor, Brent Hinds, Troy Sanders and Bill Kelliher. © Cindy Frey, courtesy Warner Brothers Records
Whoa, here's a face-ripper that doesn't let go. Bill Kelly from the band Neurosis guests on what is described as the 'metal section,' but really, the whole song is about wild, crazy-ass aggression. Brann Dailor assaults his drums like they done him wrong. Listening to him go completely ape is one of the supreme treats (and there's many) of The Hunter.
12. Bedazzled Fingernails
A three-minute work of art. Over one of the most complex, stupefying riffs Mastodon have ever composed, guttural vocals rise up and rule the day until the bridge rushes in, and the instrumental wallop is so strong, it's bound to evacuate bowels around the world. As the album winds down, Dailor becomes more and more unhinged behind his kit, and that's a very, very good thing.
13. The Sparrow
Written in memory of a close friend of the band who died of cancer, The Sparrow drifts along on a plush bed of acoustics. "Pursue happiness with diligence," the band intones from the great beyond, with gentle and affecting atmospherics bathing their words. Midway through, the metal kicks in, an overwhelming cloudburst of sound, topped off by a slow and deeply emotional, blues-soaked guitar solo. A poetic end to a poignant song, and a career peak for a major-league band.