It doesn’t matter how much expectation there is for this: on first inspection you could be forgiven if there was something about Mastodon’s sixth, ‘difficult’ album Once More ’Round The Sun that inspired more of a shrug than a triumphant punch of the air. True, it’s immediately clear that they’ve pulled out all the stops in some departments and dreamed up some of the best riffs of their career to date. We’re talking colossal, monolithic, city-levelling riffs that hark back to both Leviathan and the heaviest moments from The Hunter. But it’s also undeniable that something core is missing...
Y’see, Mastodon are the masters of narrative and it’s important to not underestimate how key this skill has been for them. The sludge/prog/WTF four-piece from Atlanta, Georgia, rode to fame not just on the back of incendiary chops, startling originality and colossal riffs but also on their ability to enthrall fans with multi-layered, modern parables told via artwork, lyrics and interviews – and so they remained for their first four albums.
And even though their last LP, 2011’s The Hunter, was supposed to be just a regular, no book-learnin’ kinda deal, it still had plenty of subtext and narrative. The title, for example, referred to guitarist Brent Hinds’ brother Brad, who passed away while out hunting. But the new album, which was recorded in Rock Falcon Studios in Nashville under the forensic eye of Nick Raskulinecz (Deftones, Rush, Foo Fighters, Alice In Chains) is so straightforward it makes The Hunter look like an Opeth triple-vinyl concept album about Game Of Thrones. Once More... essentially doesn’t have a message any more complex than ‘We’re all another year older.’ It’s the closest Mastodon have come to releasing a plug ’n’ play garage rock album.
You wouldn’t immediately know from listening to foot-on-monitor rockers such as Ember City that Brent Hinds and drummer Brann Dailor are two of the best musicians working in metal today. But freed from the tyranny of expectation, the band have delivered a mainstream rock album that’s barely less excellent for it. Tread Carefully combines the gothic 12-string of The Mission’s Tower Of Strength with the Middle Eastern vibes that Melechesh brought on Emissaries.
Motherload introduces an unbridled positivity (‘If you want it you can will it, you can have it’) that only increases on High Road; sure, this ain’t gonna please fans of The Czar or Mother Puncher, but it’s got one of the most headbang-friendly riffs they’ve written since Blood And Thunder and those guitars will make you happy to be alive as they’re kissed with sunshine.
Musically they still mix it up some on Aunt Lisa, which features some death metal vocals, a whistling modular synth and female punk rock group The Coathangers chanting like Joan Jett And The Blackhearts. Probably the biggest link to the Mastodon of yore is Diamond In The Witch House, featuring roiling, oceanic music and another guest spot from Scott Kelly of Neurosis.
Congratulations, Mastodon, on making it another year and producing another testament to your elemental talent.