After four carefully crafted concept albums, Atlanta heavy metal giants Mastodon have scaled back the heady approach for a tight, hard-hitting, and wonderfully varied fifth album, The Hunter. Where they’ve previously explored fire (2002’s Remission), water (2004’s Leviathan, which miniaturized Moby Dick), earth (2006’s Blood Mountain), and the celestial realm (2009’s Crack The Skye) with unflinching conceptualisation – both lyrically and musically, each album fitting into a sonically lush and challenging niche of its own – this time around, they let loose a bit. And, where The Hunter lacks conceptual cohesion, it’s varied and accessible enough to catapult Mastodon right to the front of the modern heavy metal pack.
The Hunter encapsulates all that makes Mastodon the sort of hard rock band that matters in an internet-driven post-radio musical landscape. Certainly, the album has its fair share of heavy riffing, and the progressive experimentation that has woven its thread through their entire catalogue is still present and accounted for, but Mastodon also seem to be positioning themselves for a major takeover of the popular heavy metal mindset. Not since the heyday of Metallica and Guns ‘N Roses has a heavy metal band seemed so comfortable straddling the line between cult worship and mass acceptance.
The album’s title track is a eulogy of sorts for guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds’ brother, who died of a heart attack while hunting last year, and it’s a haunting, lovely song that expands like the inky blackness of a convex sky, covering the listener in waves. Heavy subject matter, and the emotional centrepiece of the album, but it also demonstrates what Mastodon have gotten so good at over the years; it travels in movements, ranging from cold, brooding picking to huge, epic choruses and shredding solos in just over five minutes. That it is followed by the fast and furious Bone Dry Valley is also characteristic of the boundless energy and experimentation that Mastodon bring to the table.
Over the course of the album, Mastodon never settle into any sound or style long enough to wear it out. The longest track here clocks in under six minutes. An instantly classic hook and furious drumming under angry growling (“You killed the light!”) moor opener Black Tongue. Curl Of The Burl is heavy rock at its finest, chugging and fuzzy, and featuring the exceptionally badass lyrics, “I killed a man cos he killed my goat. I put my hands around his thoat.” Bedazzled Fingernails features a Theremin, proggy keyboard work and restless, spongy riffing; The Thickening is droning, spacy, and psychedelic; The Creature Lives channels Pink Floyd, opening with a full minute of Moog fuckery and maniacal laughter; Spectrelight features a growling vocal attack by Scott Kelly from Neurosis.
The album closes with The Sparrow, a beautiful and intensely emotional meditation on life and death, closing with the final refrain, “Pursue happiness with diligence.” It’s nuance and depth like this that sets Mastodon apart. They don’t exist just to make noise, or to thrash around, and with The Hunter, they’ve proven that they can operate just fine outside the confines of a strict narrative construction. They’ve spent the last nine years building up a rabid and devoted fan base; The Hunter should push them into the spotlight. If not, it at least cements their place in the rock canon.