Mastodon is a band that’s somehow managed to leverage itself out of easy classification. Whether it’s due to the way in which members playfully toy with their genre-splitting influences, or the fact that the band’s creative direction has managed to leapfrog expectations from album to album, Mastodon is almost as much thrash-metal as they are progressive rock, jazz and bluegrass. Since 2004’s utterly epic Herman Melville concept album, Leviathan, which announced the group as a serious musical force, the band has seemed able to do no wrong. However, despite their technical charms and gut-punching prowess, Mastodon’s real signature has been an almost lackadaisical confidence in their direction. Clever, cheeky and loosely creative ventures seem to define the band as much as anything else, and on The Hunter, Mastodon appear to be fully in their element. That is: embracing their individuality while using all the ferocious powers in their arsenal to create what is essentially a pop-metal album.
In their approach, Mastodon owes much to the pathfinding of Devin Townsend in the late ’90s. With soaring harmonic choruses, long sustaining vocal melodies and even hints of electronic influences deeply buried beneath the mountains of distortion, many songs on The Hunter hit just the right pitch, while still leaving room for drunken fight lyrics like, “I will crush your head in my hands.” It’s actually pretty hilarious at times, though it seems to be only through sheer strength of personality that they pull it off without sounding like a novelty act.
The first two-thirds of The Hunter hammer these ideas home with songs so disparate from the band’s previous work that even a non-devout metalhead like myself furrowed my brow at first listen. However, the core elements of the Mastodon sound manage to keep it all together. Brann Dailor’s powerful and incredibly technical drumming is married to a huge guitar sound that features a tasteful mixture of chugging, droning notes and occasional moments of shredding that provide undercurrents of an awesome strength. The sound actually serves the style well, and while still as massive as any Mastodon album, everything is articulate and clear so that every guitar part and drum hit pierces through the mix, serving its specific purpose within the context of each song. If Mastodon is exploring new realms with The Hunter, they’re doing so while fully exposed, like driving a hot-rod with its hood off on a grocery run.
Despite the openness, the overall arc of The Hunter is difficult to follow. There’s a lot of looseness up front, meaning much of the heavy lifting is done in the last third of the album. A highlight is “Spectrelight,” which is just a fucking awesome display of massive riffs and technical flourishes. It almost feels like this portion of the album should be the start of something completely different. With a heavily prog-rock feel, it offers some truly stellar moments.
It’s evident, however, that Mastodon is reaching for something well within their established mastery, and The Hunter doesn’t lack for dynamics and diversity throughout. Airy, delicate melodies on “Thickening” flow from the slimy, druggy soloing on the title track with ease. There are still a few curious moments. The album’s central oddity is definitely the straight-ahead, mid-tempo “Curl of the Burl,” which, I’m guessing from its first line, “I killed a man/ ‘cuz he killed my dog,” sung by Brent Hinds in a slack-jawed slur, is some sort of southern thing I wouldn’t understand. Ultimately, though, the song’s heavy-handed pentatonic riffing seems underwhelming in the context of the rest of the album, even if it’s strangely, if not annoyingly, catchy.
Mastodon may have a stranglehold on conceptual metal, but they sound like a band maybe a bit bored on The Hunter, lacking the ambition that yielded some of their stellar works previously. Even with such a well-defined sound and a few seriously heavy gems, the album is, at its heart, more poppy hard rock than anything else. At times, it’s surprisingly redundant, especially from a band known for being so incredibly adventurous. That aside, for what it is, The Hunter has some strong moments and memorable riffs, though it’s without a doubt not the band’s best work.
by Jordan Ardanaz