MASTODON — Hushed and Grim (review)

MASTODON — Hushed and Grim album cover Album · 2021 · Sludge Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
2/5 ·
lukretion
US prog metal big shots Mastodon just released their eight LP, a nearly 90-minute double-album whammy titled Hushed and Grim. I have been following the band since their 2009 breakthrough Crack the Skye and I enjoyed all releases since then, so my anticipation for the new album, that had been described as darker and more progressive than anything before, was high. Alas, my expectations were quickly disappointed after I gave the new record a couple of spins. After sitting with it for over a week, I can confidently say that Hushed and Grim is a strong contender for my personal “biggest let-down of 2021”, perhaps only second to Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites. So what went wrong?

In an interview to UK magazine PROG, drummer Brann Dailor introduced the album by saying: “We could only get it down to 15 songs. We had multiple listens at my house and those 15 songs just felt like they needed to be together. To whittle it down to 55 minutes, our usual sweet spot, we would have had to get rid of six or seven songs and it wasn’t happening.”. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the mother of all problems with this album. The band and renowned producer David Bottrill (Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Tool) decided to take an “everything goes” and “more and more” approach to songwriting and album production, which on the surface may seem to push the “progressive” ambitions of Mastodon’ music, but it ultimately greatly harms its listenability.

The main problems of the album for me are direction and consistency. This album does not have either. Its 15 tracks move back and forth between dark alternative rock/metal, spacey progressive metal and remnants of the more sludgy and metallic sound from the band’s origins, without deciding which sonic identity to give to the music. Do not get me wrong, I love albums that incorporate a set of diverse influences into the sound. But this requires careful arrangements to balance the various ingredients into the music. Here the driving approach seems to have been to just let the different influences surface at different points of a song, or in different songs, without worrying too much about how these may flow into one another. The end result is a collection of songs that are yes diverse, but also feel somewhat schizophrenic and directionless, moving back and forth between the various styles without managing to settle on a sensible compromise or achieving a satisfying amalgam. In other words, the album stutters rather than flowing gracefully, and this makes for a rather uncomfortable and frustrating listening experience.

There’s plenty of examples of this across the 15 songs of the album. “Pain with an Anchor” is an interesting opener, introducing influences from modern dark rock/metal bands like Katatonia or A Perfect Circle, that I would not have expected to hear on a Mastodon album, but the following track “The Crux” immediately reverts expectations, harking back towards the heavier and spacey metallic sounds of Once More 'Round the Sun. The album seems to settle on this groove for a couple of tracks, before “The Beast” confusingly throws in some incongruous bluesy sections to bookend what is otherwise a fairly standard piece of atmospheric progressive metal. Meanwhile “Skeleton of Splendor” and the single “Teardrinker” return to the mellow alternative vibes of the opening track, before “Pushing the Tides” veers again towards a heavier sound. The second disc pretty much continues in this ambivalent vein, almost as if Mastodon were undecided between embracing the new alternative rock/metal sound and sticking with their more traditional heavy sound.

While flow is a characteristic that I find very important in a full-length album, I could have forgiven the album’s deficiency in this department if Hushed and Grim were consistently high quality across its 15 songs. Alas, it is not. The album is crammed with mediocre material that should have absolutely been filtered out. “The Crux”, “More than I Could Chew” (which, come to think about it, is a pretty accurate description of how I feel about this record), “The Beast”, “Pushing the Tides”, “Savage Lands”, “Eyes of Serpents” are all pretty subpar songs that really do not add much to Mastodon’s extant discography, sounding like a re-hashed version of their earlier material. The frustrating thing is that the filler material severely dilutes the impact that strong tracks like “Pain with an Anchor”, “Skeleton of Splendor”, “Teardrinker”, “Peace and Tranquillity” and “Gobblers of Dregs” could have made on the listener. All these songs are interesting, some even exciting, but it is excruciating to have to wade through almost an hour of average material to get to listen to the good bits of the album.

Mastodon are top notch musicians and the playing throughout Hushed and Grim casts no doubt on this, from Brann Dailor’s frenzied drumming to Brent Hinds’ and Bill Kelliher’s dazzling guitar playing, the album brims with excellent musicianship. Where Hushed and Grim falls considerably short, however, is in the songwriting and arrangement department. Ultimately, the combo of lack of direction and watered down tracklist was definitely a killjoy for me and I do not see myself returning to this record anytime soon. I nevertheless choose to believe that this is just a blip in Mastodon’s impressive discography and I remain hopeful and looking forward to the band’s next move.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]
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siLLy puPPy wrote:
1 day ago
I love the first four albums and then everything that came after is just OK in my world. This last album is also decent as a crossover sludge metal album but WAAAAAAAAY too long.
ssmarcus wrote:
6 days ago
@UMUR - I agree about their vocal style. Although since their drummer began pitching in more, its gotten better.

I'm quite surprised at how lukewarm a lot of fans seem to be receiving the new record. If you take the span of tracks sickle and peace through the beast, Mastodon is doing things they've never really done before. Its totally fresh, and its totally prog. Some of the riff heavy tracks are absolute bangers. I suppose the more alt sounding tracks could be turn offs for some. But I think when you take this whole package together with its diversity, you get a pretty definitive Mastodon record.

UMUR wrote:
12 days ago
I enjoy the latter part of Mastodon´s discography far more than their early albums, so maybe I´ll like this one. They will never be among my favorite artists though. I always found their vocal style not to my liking. Especially on the early releases. I like their more semi-melodic approach of late better.
siLLy puPPy wrote:
12 days ago
Definitely too long and underwhelming in many ways but i like it a bit more than you. Certainly more entertaining than the last couple albums for my ears.
Tupan wrote:
12 days ago
I always had problems with albums with too many tracks, and most of these problems were described in your great review.

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