Hushed and Grim

More personal, and more melodic than ever before, Mastodon remain as brutal as ever, finds Jeremy Allen

Mastodon are no strangers to making concept records. They’ve released albums about being pursued up mountains of blood by a half-sasquatch cyclops, and one about a paraplegic boy who astral-projects himself into the body of Russia’s greatest love machine. Hushed and Grim is the first to feel like a punch to the gut though – and for good reason.

In September 2018, Mastodon lost their beloved manager, Nick John, a man they described as “the band’s dad”. They issued a Record Store Day 10” of their cover of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ shortly after his death, re-titled ‘Stairway to Nick John’, with his smiling face staring out from the cover. All proceeds went to pancreatic cancer research. Clearly such an endeavour was not nearly cathartic enough.

And so in 2021, we have Mastodon’s longest album to date, recorded under the shadow of abject sorrow and weighing in at eighty-eight minutes. If there’s a concept then it’s a simple one: grief. We’ve been here before – when Brent Hinds’ brother was killed in a shooting accident in 2010, it came during the making of The Hunter. On this occasion we have a collective meditation from all four members, who’ve had time to process the death of their mentor. While many of us had probably never heard of Nick John before he died, most of us will experience bereavement at one time or another. It’s universal and somewhat inevitable, sure, but that doesn’t make listening to other people’s pain any easier.

On ‘Sickle and Peace’ there’s a longing for the reaper to come and take the suffering away, while on ‘Skeleton of Splendor’ they sing: “We live and breathe all your thousand words / Now you sleep we’ll finish your work”. The stages of grief are all represented here, but it’s funereal in tone and unrelenting throughout, like one of Brann Dailor’s clanking snares. The stretching of this theme across the whole record feels all the more taught given the band’s unwavering focus.

The proggy mayhem of earlier masterpieces like Leviathan have been stripped away for more piledriving, song-based adventures in recent years, and whatever your feelings about that, they certainly have a way of bringing melody and viscosity together. A song like ‘Teardrinker’ sits just on the right side of emotional progressive metal, as does opener ‘Pain With An Anchor’, which more resembles the doomy ennui of Alice in Chains than the worst excesses of emo.

Hushed and Grim is not only Mastodon’s longest, but also their most personal album to date. An impressive and brutal addition to the canon, even if making it to the other side can sometimes feel like a more unassailable task than traversing Blood Mountain itself.

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