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The Hunter John Doran , October 10th, 2011 10:55

Everyone loves a narrative. Few know this better than Atlanta Georgia sludge bastards turned heavy prog rockers Mastodon. Their breakthrough 2004 album Leviathan was loosely based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and their most successful album to date, Crack The Skye in 2009, concerns the adventures of a quadriplegic travelling the astral plain before accidentally getting stranded in Tsarist Russia.

For their fifth album The Hunter however they have abandoned theme and plot and just harnessed together 13 supremely belting tracks. The press and the public won’t let them slip out of story-telling mode so easily though. They have been saddled with the "new Metallica" tag for a long time and this “easy” album, full of potential radio hits (only one of the fourteen tracks is over five minutes long and some have massive “pop” hooks), will therefore be seen as their Black Album. But while The Hunter will be considered a massive success even if it sells one fiftieth the amount of Metallica’s self-titled LP, in artistic terms it is already clearly a vastly superior album.

Free from thematic constraints and genre demands for excessive displays of virtuosity, ironically they have been given the space to really flex their muscles. The down home ZZ Top boogie of 'Curl Of The Burl' - a song concerning drug-addicted woodsmen looking for interesting pine knots, doing fat lines of sawdust before going on an arboreal sexual rampage - is balanced out by two of the heaviest, face melting numbers they have recorded since leaving Relapse ('Blasteroid' and 'Spectrelight'). 'All The Heavy Lifting' looks back to some prime doom, and by that we don’t mean to Black Sabbath or Pentagram but to Mussorgsky’s 'Night On Bald Mountain' or Gustav Holst’s 'Mars', as played by King Crimson.

They break new ground on several psychedelic, space rock tracks, most notably the weird Flaming Lips/Keith Emerson sounding 'The Creature Lives' which is heralded by a fanfare of vintage MOOGs played in tribute to cult outsider R Stevie Moore before becoming an outsiders ode concerning itself with the lovechild of the Creature From The Black Lagoon and Swamp Thing. As you may have guessed by now Mastodon seem to have regained their sense of humour after some trying years. (This is reinforced when Brent Hinds sings the opening lines to 'Curl Of The Burl': "I killed a man because he kicked my goat.")

This is not to say that the album is lacking in introspection. The album's title track - a beautifully understated moment - is dedicated to Brent's brother Brad, who died while hunting late last year. Instead of the customary song about Joseph/John Merrick, the Elephant Man, the album closes on another tribute, this time to friend of the band, Susie Polay which is built round her mantra when alive: "Pursue happiness with dilligence." It is not unusual to hear metal/very heavy rock bands singing about death but it is more of a rarity to hear them singing about the loss of loved ones in such an open and thoughtful manner.

The Hunter is an example of how to crossover without selling out - something Metallica never learned - and no matter how many copies it sells, this is the mainstream heavy rock album of the year.