Mastodon - The Hunter, A Track-By-Track Guide
, September 12th, 2011 05:31
Toby Cook goes through the new Mastodon LP The Hunter, and proclaims it "fucking awesome"
Having been released as a single back in July many of you will already be familiar with this, the opener to more-than-eagerly-anticipated fifth album from one of the most important bands in Metal – yet time has not dampened the impact. Much has been made about the fact that Mastodon have dispensed with the idea of tying their albums to conceptual themes – on this outing at least – and whereas 'Oblivion', the opener to previous LP Crack The Skye, via an ominous, building, tri-chord lead approach, beckoned us into the world of a trans-dimensional paraplegic who at various points finds himself in space and in Tsarist Russia, 'Black Tongue' punches in with the type of comparatively simplistic, repetitive opening riff.
Its impact and construction sits somewhere between the realms of Remission and Leviathan, whilst the shifting pace and fluctuating time signatures seem to have risen, constrictor-esque, from Blood Mountain; the sparse instrumentation coupled with tight, dense production giving the impression of a collision of all that has made Mastodon what they are up until this point. Although as Troy laments in the opening lines: "I burnt out my eyes / I cut out my tongue / I sealed them with silver/ And now I have none", it's clear the group have not totally left the abstract behind. Mastodon have never written a bad opening track and this is definitely no exception.
Curl Of The Burl
Those of you with at least one eye on YouTube may also already be familiar with this ode to forest-dwelling meth-heads. Opening with the type of sludge heavy, off-time and atonal riff (written by accident whilst a stoned-off-his-tits Brent tuned his guitar) that we thought they'd left on Remission the sense of The Hunter being a collision of all their past musical endeavours, knotted into the musical equivalent of the eponymous burl, is again reinforced as atop the sludge comes a melodic, eminently whistleable harmonic progression that leads us to a more familiar moments of astral grazing, wailing guitars – odd, given the groups focus on the loose theme of wood that pervades this and later moments of the album.
It's been said before, but if Mastodon are about anything, they are about Brann Dailor's instantly recognisable, snare roll heavy drumming style, and the obscene amount of fills that find their way to places they just shouldn't fit. What is most satisfying here is that, having been conspicuously pared back on Crack the Skye, for the second consecutive track it's clear that it's back with a vengeance.
Although the harmonising guitar lines of the opening riff again call to mind the approach favoured on Blood Mountain, ostensibly this is a two and a half minute, fret wanking finger frenzy. Despite being the albums first proper face melter, what stands out here is the clear focus on both Troy and Brent's vocal performances – the decidedly un-Mastodon sounding, double tracked verses making way to the more familiar (and recently missed) strained, death metal-ish caterwaul that sounds like a mental patient trying to scream all the oxygen out of his body.
Freeing themselves from the constraints of writing under one specific conceptual theme may have given them more licence to write bollock smashing face melters like 'Blasteroid' but it has also allowed them to write condensed prog heavy voyages about orgasms in space like this. The tri-chord lead intro returns and although comparatively riff free, here we are once again remained of Mastodon's innate ability to craft music that creates the impression of being spun to the edges of some sort of hallucinatory, astral spectrograph. The first foray the album makes beyond guitar, bass and drums; the synth parts are not as surprising as the appearance of the fluctuating wails of a Theremin.
The Octopus Has No Friends
Instantly familiar, the bluegrass-ish, almost banjo-esque guitar playing technique – lead by a heavy use of the hammer-on and pull-off – that has become so synonymous with Mastodon rears its head again here, yet so does the more recent penchant for more a more subtle style of vocal delivery. And there's humour here too, despite the sombre, descending chorus of "I'm on my way back home…". That, coupled with the increasing layers of minimal instrumentation that build things to not-quite-but-nearly epic proportions, lends a heavy and surprising feeling of melancholia.
All The Heavy Lifting
Best. Mastodon. Track. Ever. A bold claim, I know, yet beyond the quality of the writing and the uncompromised accessibility, there is such emotion here. The pitch and roll and relentless forward motion, supplied once again by Brann's drumming, coupled with yet more direct and un-complex, yet brutal riffing á la Remission makes this feel like the voyage of a monolithic, cross continental steam train: Whilst it may cross many borders and journey through many cultural and geographical obstacles, and be affected by them all, it is never, and can never be, anything more than what it is. Mastodon have dealt with emotional pain before, notably on the title track to Crack The Skye, but now, as they compel you to "Just close your eyes / And pretend that everything's fine", you're there man, you're really there.
Slow, considered and very minimal. The most obviously emotionally charged track on the album – dedicated as it is (as is the LP itself) to Brent's brother, who died last year of a heart attack while hunting – the group's love of Neurosis is worn firmly on their sleeves here in the sparse, cavernous build, although their now familiar bluegrass-esque playing style is has been infused with Middle Eastern feel and rhythm. It may be weighed down by its history, yet the expression of emotion channelled by Brent in the epic solo makes it of his best.
Dry Bone Valley
A seamless transition from the close of 'The Hunter' in to an unexpected E-bow intro that soon makes way for thrash tinged, palm-muted power chord riff-age – as well as an indulgent wah-wah heavy solo – that, although harking back to their Leviathan sound, the impressive vocal range on display once again brings that air of being an unstable mix of all their previous album's various musical elements. It's painful to say it, but this is unfortunately a rather weak moment and, arrrrgghhh, a bit 'by numbers' (as far as Mastodon can ever be a 'by the numbers' band!).
As thick and as sludgy as this is intro is; as much as its layered acoustic tracks and low in the mix mandolin refrain remind me of 'Joseph Merrick'; as much as the phased vocals lend and air of both melody and discomfort, this for all the world sounds like a pop tune in structure. In another style, with the opening vocal line of "Turn the lights down low", it could almost be considered sexy! (I'll leave shall I?).
The Creature Lives
Wait, what?... A huge, protracted Moog intro, punctuated with moments of maniacal laughter sucks you into what feels like the 'star gate' scene at the end of 2001... with the close up of Keir Dullea's eye that cuts between block colours as he blinks. That is until in morphs into an OM sounding bass refrain that leads towards chanting, multi-layered vocals that, if they're ever to perform it live, compel audience participation. This is daring to say the least; totally un-Mastodon, it's a gamble that has paid off big time and the most obvious example yet of the groups (say it quietly) more radio friendly approach.
Like being plunged into a freezing ocean after the unusual manoeuvres of 'The Creature…', we're now firmly back in Leviathan-esque, melon-twisting riff territory. Brutal death metal vocals that hit like having root canal work in your ears drill through yet more frenetic drum work that's erratic, off-time movements bring the sense that it's a damaged particle fluctuating between infinite positions in time and space. Probably the least developed track so far, but another face melter nonetheless.
I don't know exactly what this track is about, and I won't pretend to, but the pervading thought is that it's a Hammer Horror soundtrack gone metal. The staccato guitar work, the low, groaning and moaning vocals in the verse – add that to what is either the second appearance of a Theremin after 'Stargasm' or someone playing a saw and it's The Curse O Frankenstein. Except with huge riffs and yet more of Dailor's signature drum work.
Finishing on yet another deeply personal and emotional note 'The Sparrow' is dedicated to the wife of the band's accountant, who recently passed away from stomach cancer; the song's only lyrics "pursue happiness, with diligence" were her motto. Musically it's about as sombre and contemplative as one would expect. Opening with a sparse acoustic and synth arrangement before gradually building to include a gut retching, muted chord progression that where it faster and more prominent would have been one of the heaviest on the album. As it is, the fact that it is so low in the mix lends it a different kind of heaviness. Curiously, the totally linier progression of the track, relying almost totally on changes in tone and timbre, congers thoughts of Earth, if Dylan Carlson dealt in riffs rather than repetitiveness.
Much has been made, and much will continue to be made about Mastodons abandoning of an umbrella concept, but by the time The Hunter comes to a close it matters not. Yes the production, courtesy of the hip-hop friendly Mike Elizondo, is at times overly burnished and there are more than a few moments of radio-friendly-ness, but consider this: When was the last time you heard an ode to the love child of Swamp Thing and The Creature From The Black Lagoon, or song about fucking in space on the radio? Each of Mastodon's previous four releases exist in their own worlds, and have their own specific characteristics – the genius here is that they've managed to pull in all that made those LP's what they were and combine them to create something both familiar and unexpected… And honestly, pretty fucking awesome too.