After finishing up their little four-album exploration of the elements, Mastodon returns with their latest offering The Hunter. Unlike their other efforts, The Hunter features artwork that is not badass in any way, shape or form (although you can purchase a mask of it, if you so desire), so that’s a bit of a letdown, but let’s ignore aesthetics for a second and get into what might be one of the most polarizing releases of the year.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before-this is different than previous Mastodon albums. And of course you’ve heard that before, because Mastodon never makes the same album twice…except this time, they went in reverse. Whereas Crack the Skye saw the band explore progression so far away from their roots they might as well have been on Mars, The Hunter takes a major step backward both in terms of technicality and breaking new ground. The songs are more structured for the most part; no more 13-minute epics for you! In their place are fairly standard, verse-chorus tracks that like to jump right into things, rather than build up and set an atmosphere.
For lots of other bands, this would have been a problem. Crack the Skye is, in my opinion, one of the pinnacles of American metal progression; an effort that you wouldn’t have believed came from the same boys that wrote “March of the Fire Ants” had the band name been covered up or something. So when I heard the samples of stuff from The Hunter, I was genuinely concerned. Had Mastodon run out of gas? Did they dig themselves a hole too deep, leaving no options other than backing up the truck in hopes of saving their identity?
No worries. This is still Mastodon, you can be assured of that. Brann Dailor’s frantic drumming is still top-notch and instantly recognizable, as are the unorthodox vocal deliveries of guitarist Brent Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders. While Dailor does pull some punches to compensate for the stripped-down sound, it doesn’t make for any worse of a performance, and his short time in the vocal spotlight on “Dry Bone Valley” and “Creature Lives” is excellent as usual. The sludgy riffage is there in spades, making tracks like “Curl of the Burl” seem heavier than the radio-friendly singles that they really are. The lyrical content is…well, it’s weird (sex in outer space, anyone?), but it’s probably time to stop expecting anything different in that regard. So yes, if you’re scared that this change in style is an identity-sacrificing move, don’t be; if you’ve liked anything this band has done before, chances are you’ll like this too.
Word on the street is, The Hunter is hard to get into. While a couple of songs are kinda OH NOES SYNTHESIZERS?!?!?!?, this album is very accessible, so I don’t buy into that line of thinking. Brent and Troy couldn’t have picked a better time to learn how to sing (never thought they were all that great before now), because some of the vocal lines here are as catchy as your standard European power metal album, sans choirs and whatnot. Try “All the Heavy Lifting” or “Octopus Has No Friends” for some really great vocal performances. Most of the tracks don’t go past 4 minutes, so they’re not broken into parts, movements, or anything that would scare off someone with a short attention span. For the fans of the band’s early days, this is good news, although I’m still missing tracks like “The Czar”…but that wouldn’t fit here.
That being said, there are a few elements in here that will throw you off upon first listen, although I don’t think they’re prevalent enough to warrant a negative opinion. As catchy as “Blasteroid” is, it’s basically a pop rock song with harsh vocals in the chorus, with little substance outside of that. The first minute of “Creature Lives” sounds like a modern space ambient project or Pink Floyd cover band, there are so many synths floating around-and the rest of the song is equally as strange, unfurling into a ballad with Brann’s vocals and a simple guitar lick portraying sadness and angst. Whether this stuff works is up for debate; put me in the camp of being able to do without it. Other than these two tracks, however, there really isn’t anything on The Hunter that’s too alienating.
At the end of the day, it’s another change in direction yielding another successful album by the guys from Atlanta. While I still believe that the Crack the Skye approach was Mastodon’s best route to greatness, I can’t fault them for The Hunter; truly talented is a band that can explore different styles of their genre, without a drop in quality or abandoning what got them there in the first place. The Hunter doesn’t score as well as it might have by virtue of not having a high enough ceiling, but it’s nonetheless another notch in the pole for one of America’s few great modern metal bands. Definitely worth a shot.