Longtime fans know there are two Mastodons. There’s the one that has the herculean strength to write and perform magnanimous prog metal on a daily basis, who don’t so much as speak a word of stage banter at their concerts and who build albums around evermore-complicated concepts. Then, there’s the one in their music videos who dress up as yetis to play guitar solos or put clowns in moshpits or, more recently, show dudes growing multiple arms. The Atlanta quartet has done a pretty impressive job of keeping the two Mastodons separate. However, on their fifth full length, The Hunter, the group dabbles in some absurdist humor, giving songs titles like “Octopus Has No Friends” and “Bedazzled Fingernails.” This new inclusion of humor into the Mastodon on record shouldn’t be a surprise given the group’s career as a whole, but the action communicated one clear thing to me: For the first time in their career, Mastodon are letting their guard down.
This would be a logical conclusion given the events leading up to this point. Members of Mastodon had been noted as being irritated over having to explain to interviewers over and over the details to the excellent but no less convoluted concept to the group’s 2009 album, Crack the Skye. It’s understandable that they would want to step away from such lofty ambitions and write something decidedly less self-serious, and this sentiment has been expressed by group members in reference to The Hunter. Even the term “Mastodon mixtape” has been thrown around a little bit.
In a way, that description is incredibly apt. The Hunter borrows sounds from almost all phases of Mastodon’s wide-ranging career. “Spectrelight” has the distorted heaviness of prime Leviathan and “Bedazzled Fingernails” has the melodicism and spindly guitar parts to make it a fine fit for Blood Mountain. By far, though, the phase of Mastodon’s career represented the most on The Hunter is Crack the Skye. Many tracks have introductions reminiscent of the album’s characteristic spaciousness, the title track and “Thickening” even sounding like condensed versions of the epics from that album “The Last Baron” and “The Czar” respectively. At first, such rampant self-reference is a little distracting in enjoying The Hunter, but, once you find that such tactics result in excellent songs regardless, you can pretty much forgive them for such creative transgressions.
The only new direction Mastodon go on The Hunter is into places decidedly less metallic. The bloozy riffing on “Curl of the Burl” makes the Ozzy comparisons to Brent Hinds’s voice that much more relevant and “Black Tongue” stuffs all the group’s defining characteristics into a fairly comprehensive three and a half minutes. Sung exclusively by drummer Brad Dailor, “Creature Lives” contains no aggression at all, and for that it will probably be The Hunter‘s most controversial track. However, with its swooning pre-chorus and immaculate production, it’s an album highlight, nonetheless. The best track, though, is the one that doesn’t fit into any of the aforementioned categories. At a blistering two and a half minutes, “Blasteroid” freebases Mastodon’s intensity to “Bladecatcher” levels of absurdity. (Choice Quote: “I WANNA BREAK SOME FUCKING GLAAAAAAAAAAAAAASS”)
All this proves to be a rewarding experience, but criticisms of The Hunter for being creatively stagnant are valid. While the album may be fun, it certainly doesn’t propel the group forward nearly as much as anything they have created before. To that, though, I would say, considering Mastodon’s been the formative American metal group of the past decade, I think we can forgive them for a quick breather before moving onto something else. That being said, if Mastodon feels like pumping out albums like The Hunter for the rest of their career, I and many others will not be so welcoming. The record is an excellent pseudo-retrospective of one of the most fascinating rock groups of our generation, even though, technically, it’s their second to worst album. (Wasn’t that big a fan of Remission) Still, entering a new decade, it only makes me more excited to see what Mastodon will come up with next.