Mastodon Get Increasingly Radio-Friendly AND Psychedelic While Traveling Once More ‘Round The Sun
Any which way you slice it, the new Mastodon album Once More ‘Round The Sun comes with a healthy dose of expectation. After all, this is THE band that has almost single-handedly brought contemporary progressive metal to its highest standard of accolades and accessibility, garnering umpteen non-metal fans across the board. Yet over time the ‘don has also created a decisive divide amongst old-school, new-school, and stayed-in-school fans with its increasingly radio-friendly sound. For every excited newcomer to the Masto-world, the group seems to lose another ally elsewhere — sure, the tr00est troglodytes have been bemoaning the band’s waning legitimacy (in heaviness, at least) since after Remission, but it seems with every new release another cadre of fans falls off.
“They were good until Leviathan…”
“Blood Mountain was the last Mastodon album I dug…”
“Why can’t they just make another Crack the Skye??”
“Fuck The Hunter!”
These types of ambivalent or derogatory sentiments have been abound for years, but that hasn’t stopped Mastodon one bit, and now they prepare to journey once again right ’round our closest star. Has it panned out? Let’s examine.
Given the divisive nature of the band’s recent work, I feel it is important to say up front that for all intents and purposes I am essentially a super-fan and have been for ages. Sure, some songs in the band’s repertoire give me less tingles than others, but I can say with confidence that every album by this juggernaut outfit pretty much does it for me.
Yes, much like the rest of you I have cried foul on some of the group’s live vocal performances, but that alone wasn’t nearly enough to dissuade me from hyping last album The Hunter as my number one favorite album of 2011.
And coming from that record, it seemed pretty obvious that the band would continue down the path of increasingly palatable song structures; the chances we would get another proggy crusher appeared grim. But wouldn’t we want the band to grow in some kind of new direction? I have written on this site time and time again about the importance of bands evolving, how putting out the same album again and again will get you to a stale nowhere mighty fast. Mastodon obviously prescribe to a similar approach and remain open to letting the artistry grow and take new form, even if it is a decidedly commercial one.
From the get-go, this album sounds like a much more straightforward (and sometimes slightly watered-down) version of the Mastodon we have come to know and love. I have already heard many folks praise this album and denegrate The Hunter in the same breath, and my take on this 1-2 praise/punch combo is that the transition from Crack the Skye to The Hunter was substantially more unexpectedly abrupt, so to release an album of mostly hooky, big chorus tunes now seems like an obvious and natural choice. I personally think that The Hunter has funner songs overall and a bit more bite than Once More ‘Round The Sun, but there’s a lot of great material to go on here, and the choice to have various band members take the reins at times with vocal duties helps to create a very diverse listening experience from start to finish.
Opening track “Tread Lightly” begins with a fantastically foreboding acoustic intro that leads into a pretty standard, lukewarm groove (especially by Mastodon’s standards), but this song evolves into a much more diverse and exploratory jam than one might expect from its beginning; the second half in particular offers a worthy orbit resplendent with gritty riffage, funky drumbeats, luscious vocal harmonies, and a ripping guitar solo on the way out — almost everything you’d want from our beloved Mastodon, all wrapped up in a tidier package than usual.
There seems to be a comfortable formula to how the melodic vocals enter several verses on this new collection of songs, but it’s the choruses that really shine with tasty flavor and lush melodic risks. From “Tread Lightly” to “The Motherload” (perhaps the catchiest song on this album, especially the crooning, almost yacht rock melody in its chorus) to “High Road” (the lead single off Sun and one of the album’s chuggiest tunes), there are hooks aplenty — but they are mostly to be found in each chorus, which continually up the ante from the more straight-ahead verses.
It should be noted that with this album, the band seems to be making a distinct choice to focus on “song” writing and structure more than ever before; each track has a nice flow to it, but I’m talking more pop sensibility than pacing of parts (Mastodon has never had any issue with the latter). So it wouldn’t surprise me if the band made a conscious choice to keep the verses somewhat restrained so as to let the choruses fly into an outer space of melodic variance. Distinct key and/or rhythm changes for some of the choruses achieve a similar effect as well.
And don’t bother looking for screams here — according to handlebar mustachio’d guitar player Bill Keliher in a recent Loudwire interview: “I think us screaming and yelling is kind of a thing of the past.” But at this point, how much do we really miss it? Whether you like it or not, the band is on a clear path, and I for one offer supreme props for pursuing and evolving a real sense of lush vocal dynamics — in a way, it seems even ballsier to get less ballsy.
By the time we reach the title track, we are (finally) offered this album’s first odd time signature, and it couldn’t come soon enough. I get the feeling that the ‘don is specifically trying to not overstay its welcome on any of these tracks, but since it felt like it was just kicking into gear, this one — the shortest song on Sun, clocking in just under the three-minute-mark — ended a little too soon for me. However, I’m not surprised that the band chose this track to symbolize the essence of the record as a whole; the song embodies the vibe of Mastodon’s traditional style combined with a healthy dose of harmony and a bit of psychedelia to boot.
Which brings me to an important point: in several places, Sun offers some of the trippiest moments we’ve heard yet from the band. Not headiest, per se — those belong to prior nerdy proggouts like “Capillarian Crest” off Blood Mountain — I’m talking more like 1969-ish sunsplashed acid flashbacks….these incidents are subtle but they’re certainly there. Frankly, this is one thing that might impress me the most about this album — it is undoubtedly the band’s most commercial and radio-friendly offering yet (enough to get a major mention in this week’s Entertainment Weekly, no less) but there’s still a sense of wandering, exploration, and downright weirdness at times as well. And not only in the eerie sonic landscape; I mean, sweet baby Jeebus, just take a look at Skinner’s cover art above…
Right around the halfway point of the album we are treated to and challenged by perhaps the best (“Chimes at Midnight”) and most inconsistent (“Asleep in the Deep”) songs this time around the sun. Second single “Chimes” has a great bookended intro/outro that is slightly reminiscent of some of the deliberate guitar work on Remission (allbeit with a bit more lilt and swagger), and once the main riff comes in — followed by a headstrong rock-out part and a harmonically memorable chorus — we are reminded why we showed up in the first place. This is Mastodon through and through.
I can’t say the same for “Asleep”, however. After a predictable four-on-the-floor intro and a lackluster verse, we are given a murky, melodramatic chorus (that’s also kind of 90s-sounding, which actually makes sense given that the album’s producer Nick Raskulinecz has previously worked with Alice in Chains, Foo Fighters, and Deftones). Aside from a couple cool textural accents, this uneven track feels like a maudlin mish-mash and still hasn’t completely won me over four listens in. I’m coming around though; the rockout/solo section/final chorus in the last 1.5 minutes in particular are slowly starting to do it for me.
Subsequent jam “Feast Your Eyes” opens with a great intro and quickly settles into an uptempo, thoroughly Mastodonian racehorse verse, only to throw us for a loop with a rich vocal harmony in the emotive chorus. This is among the shorter tunes on Sun (the only shorter song is the title track), but it packs one of the biggest wallops, and should be killer live.
“Aunt Lisa” starts out decently enough, alternating between rich, clean vocal melodies and distorted robotic yelping, but an unexpected sing-a-long end section at the end featuring bratty gang vocals by girl band (and fellow Atlantans) The Coathangers is pretty cheesy and difficult to recover from. I will offer resolute kudos for going out on such a limb with admittedly good intentions (it seems like a cleverly self-referential homage to the Ramones, arguably the most commercial punk band of all time) but this Faith No More-esque moment seems a bit out of place.
Another rocker with a powerful chorus, “Ember City” brings us into the home stretch of Once More ‘Round The Sun, which also includes the slightly nostalgic-feeling “Halloween” (a tune with Brent all over it, guitar and vocals-wise) as well as the longest song on Sun, album closer “Diamond In The Witch House”, a deliberately paced (and slightly drone-y) brooder that doesn’t offer much variation and feels a little too long yet thankfully incorporates some much-appreciated fiery throwback Leviathan-type elements to create a rich mood throughout.
Despite my reservations about Once More ‘Round The Sun, the more I get to know it the more the songs are getting stuck in my head and I am increasingly able to comprehend the band’s overall vision. Somehow straddling the line between dark and sunny, with plenty moments of deceptive heaviness-you-didnt-realize-was-quite-so-heavy and a penchant for the bizarre — you might be well-advised to eat that pot brownie buried in the back of your freezer before taking this journey around the sun…
Rest assured, you’re in good hands.
Mastodon’s Once More ‘Round the Sun is out now. Get it here.