At heart, Atlanta metal titans Mastodon have always been a great rock ‘n’ roll band. That may not have been quite as apparent through the thick, sludgy churn of debut album Remission, but with 2004′s Leviathan and Reprise debut Blood Mountain, the band reinforced their burly thrashers with a keen melodic sensibility and honest-to-god hooks. And it’s likely because of this emphasis on melody and songwriting that led Mastodon to be one of the most successful crossover metal acts of the last decade, winning over as many indie rockers as longtime metalheads. Yet with 2009′s Crack the Skye, the band’s excursion into ambitious, conceptual prog-rock, Mastodon tamped down on that classic rock swagger in favor of a broader, artier sprawl. Yet by focusing on bigger, more ornate pieces, they sacrificed much in the way of fun.
On fifth album The Hunter, Mastodon has done an almost complete 180-degree turn, having crafted a badass riff-rock album that places fun about ten notches higher on the hierarchy than prog odysseys. Recorded with producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Fiona Apple), The Hunter is no less a massive album in sound than its gargantuan predecessor. But where that album’s tracks mostly stretched past six minutes, sometimes up to 13, only two of this album’s songs even reach the five-minute mark. This is an album of more concise, efficient rockers that maintain a steady fist-pump factor while only occasionally taking trips to outer space.
Searing the front of the album with its fiery riffs, leadoff track and early single “Black Tongue” kicks up some early momentum with punchy guitars and a boogie-shuffle beat that transitions nicely into new single “Curl of the Burl,” a head-nodding stoner metal groover that finds Brent Hinds sounding more like Ozzy Osbourne than ever. But the stakes are set even higher with the amazingly titled “Blasteroid,” a Torche-style bundle of high-octane metal and unshakable hooks that ranks as two and a half of the album’s most exciting minutes.
Mastodon has always maintained a heavy emphasis on tuneful songwriting, even if under layers of thick, low-end distortion and menacing howls. On The Hunter, however, their songs sound more radio-friendly than ever. The outstanding “Dry Bone Valley” soars and chugs like vintage Alice In Chains, revealing one of the catchiest choruses the band has ever cooked up. Meanwhile, “Spectrelight” is a vintage ripper a la “The Wolf Is Loose” or “Crystal Skull,” and “Stargasm” pivots back and forth between atmospheric passages and heavy surges of metal muscle. Yet even in their more progressive moments, Mastodon maintain a level of accessibility and creativity that keep their lengthier tracks interesting. There’s a dramatic Western twang to the title track, beefed up by a touch of Hammond organ. The band takes a similar tack on closing epic “The Sparrow,” ending the album with an atmospheric majesty.
There’s never been a shortage of ideas or breathtaking musicianship on Mastodon albums, and The Hunter is pretty well crammed with both. But while the band has by no means cut back on ambition, they’ve maintained their career-long pursuit of massive, crunchy metal epics while setting their focus on crafting some truly outstanding rock ‘n’ roll songs. Not every metal band pulls that off, nor should all of them make the attempt, but Mastodon’s got this.
Video: Mastodon – “Black Tongue”