Mastodon has never been a band to be artistically stagnant, so their gradual drift toward a more mainstream style (arguably beginning with the success of the single “Colony of Birchmen” from Blood Mountain) shouldn’t be horribly shocking to any serious metal fan. However, few may have guessed that an act which was just recently among the best metal bands in America would move even further into rock than they did on 2011’s The Hunter. If the name doesn’t indicate it enough, the music on the follower Once More ‘Round the Sun does exactly that, playing up Mastodon’s roots in psychedelic, stoner, and grunge rock and polishing it into a hook-laden whole.
The opening two tracks, “Tread Lightly” and “The Motherload” fit this mold perfectly, both heavily-produced (vocal fades and all), heavily-guitared, and somewhat-catchy offerings. Similar to contemporaries Baroness, Mastodon take cues from the smooth production of hard rock records from the 90s (e.g. Nevermind) and craft a clean sound to kick off the album. However, those tracks give way to the welcome heavy riffing of “High Road,” a sludge metal romp — in the vein of Torche or He Is Legend — with a big, anthemic chorus. Despite the ambition for more conventional structure and a commercial sheen, Brann Dailor and the rest of Mastodon do not slow their pace, instead shredding supersonically through the record. This approach often creates a nice balance for the accessible material (as it did on The Hunter), and provides the highlights of the album when it makes the occasional veer towards mathcore (“Chimes at Midnight,” “Diamond in the Witch House”).
When Mastodon flirts more strongly with metal and psychedelia than alternative rock and pop is obviously where they’re strongest; the busy guitar layering and languid melodies on “Chimes and Midnight” and “Asleep in the Deep” work because they’re tried and true, but the peppy chorus of “High Road” can’t help but come across a little flat. Like Cynic on Kindly Bent to Free Us, Mastodon runs into difficulty here because rock records need a charismatic vocal performance to sustain themselves. As such, many of the gang-vocal hooks on Once More ‘Round the Sun are unremarkable, making them generally slightly weaker overall than their predecessors on The Hunter. To their credit — perhaps recognizing this problem — Mastodon brings in Scott Kelly (of Neurosis) for the long, standout closer “Diamond in the Witch House” and Atlanta punk group the Coathangers for a poppy coda on “Aunt Lisa,” incorporating both to the benefit of the individual songs. And there are indeed moments when Mastodon can handle the hooks themselves, such as “Ember City” and “Halloween,” two of the more evocative tracks on the record.
When all is said and done, though, the final legacy of Once More ‘Round the Sun will not be that of Mastodon’s “commercial breakthrough,” which has probably already happened to the extent that it ever will. Instead, the album serves as an honest portrayal of where the band is at this stage in their career – trying to reinvent themselves and test their limits. As a result, it showcases the band for both their strengths and weaknesses; in their comfort zone and right up against the precipice of their capabilities. Yes, they are all mortal after all, but even if they haven’t exactly realized the best direction to head in yet, they’re still as potent as ever. And that’s good news for posterity.