Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Mastodon - The Hunter [9/10]

There are a few handfuls of bands within the modern metal stratosphere that dedicate their careers to rising above the wash of lowest-common-denominator music that floods our scene seemingly with endless abandon and absolutely zero concern for the evolution and forward movement of our music that was once upon a time, believe it or not, genuinely praised. For every Tool, there is a million Emmure’s - for every Deftones, there is a million Asking Alexandria’s – for every Opeth, there is a million Five Finger Death Punch’s. But if there’s one band to emerge in the past 15 years that have so unashamedly set themselves apart from anything remotely resembling a pack, and have stubbornly pushed through hoards of average music to become one of the most revered, influential and, in all honesty, SUPRISINGLY successful metal bands of recent times, it is Mastodon. Does it seem conceivable to you at all that a band whose first four albums each respectively represented one of the four elements per album (earth, water, fire, air) would be signed to as major a label as Warner Bros.? Does it not seem a tad odd that a band whose last album revolved around a concept which includes a paraplegic, astral projection and Rasputin would be playing massive slots at major festivals? It’s for reasons such as this that Mastodon deserve all of your respect. They have handled every aspect of their career exactly as they have intended to and have never once pandered to the industry, their fans or even each other. Such is the reason why The Hunter breaks their concept album trend, and the change has clearly been a welcome one. The diversity on show throughout this record is at once both striking and instantly laudable and, as is customary with Mastodon by this point, it holds its fair share of surprises and curveballs, effortlessly tossed in with that signature omnipresent Mastodon sound. Let’s read on, skids.

If you have a soul, you’ll have heard ‘Black Tongue’ by now, and it’s everything you want as an introduction to new Mastodon – a catchy Brent Hinds riff, the patented Brann Dailor groove, and utterly demonic Troy Sanders vocals. The aforementioned diversity comes into play early with the ZZ Top swing of ‘Curl Of The Burl’, an absolute tour de force for Brent Hinds, and the almost (dare I say it) happy-sounding ‘Blasteroid’. Don’t let that put you off – even in their “nicest” moments Mastodon have always managed to be criminally heavy, and there’s absolutely zero change here. ‘Stargasm’ slows the pace down considerably as it veers into subtle Crack The Skye territory, before taking a visit to the Leviathan era on ‘Octopus Has No Friends’ and back to Blood Mountain on ‘All The Heavy Lifting’. I make a point to reference these albums for only one reason – The Hunter is the bastard child of all of their previous efforts. Without repeating themselves or even full on plagiarising themselves, they’ve managed to take the essence of what made each of their past albums great (and in most cases some of the best metal albums of the past ten years) and fuse them together while at the same time giving The Hunter its own unique flavour. It makes for a simply spellbinding listen, as the absolutely breathtaking title track practically hypnotizes you into a sense of false security, before reminding you that this is Mastodon you’re listening to. For fuck’s sake – whatever you do, don’t get too comfortable, because ‘Dry Bone Valley’ and ‘Thickening’ are absolute masterclasses in psychedelic metal, constantly switching moods and (surely by this point in the album) forcing you to feel like you’re losing your mind. ‘Creature Lives’ hardly helps matters, a tribute to The Creature From The Black Lagoon and the biggest curveball of the album. It is by all means intended as an absolute pisstake, but by Christ, they even do this perfectly (essentially, it’s Mastodon doing a Christmas carol. Seriously). As only Mastodon could get away with, they follow this up with ‘Spectrelight’, a mammoth slab of old-school Mastodon featuring the purely terrifying vocals of Neurosis’ Scott Kelly. Perhaps this album’s biggest strength is its pure schizophrenic nature, skull-crushing Masto-metal and ever so slightly unhinged psychedelia being the most obvious themes, which is why the stunning album closer ‘The Sparrow’ seems to carry so much finality to it. By the time you reach this track (seemingly intended as a distant cousin to the title track), you have already been swept into a tornado of aural brilliance and sheer versatility, and ‘The Sparrow’ acts almost as a comedown after what is surely the most emotional album of Mastodon’s career.

The truth is Mastodon couldn’t get it wrong if they tried. Like The Mars Volta, Devin Townsend and The Dillinger Escape Plan, their focus is sternly on progression, experimentation and, above all else, complete artistic freedom. In a world where bands play it safe and release album after album of average Metallica rip-off’s and/or post-metalcore wankery, they shamelessly liberate themselves of any musical restriction and deliver album after album of bona fide prog metal genius – constantly advancing, creating entirely original sonic landscapes and making a legitimate impact on people’s lives. To slap them with the title of “a thinking man’s band” is frankly ludicrous – everyone in the world could easily find even one little thing to enjoy about Mastodon’s music. It’s just a shame that a music world that values image, popularity and controversy amongst other entirely aesthetic selling points over quality of product all too often leaves bands like Mastodon in the dust. But they keep pushing on, never compromising and never changing their unique vision, and The Hunter is just another step in the right direction. We can only hope that more bands choose to follow their lead, seek to change things, and push to influence. That’s how we got to this point in the first place. Fuck the trend. Long live Mastodon. They’ve bloody done it again.

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