The metal titans pull further away from their concept driven roots – can they succeed in defining what a mega-stadium metal band should sound like in 2014?
You can, all too easily, peak too early as a band. If you release an album that quickly becomes regarded as a classic, an iconic, unshiftable monolith, you will forever be in it’s shadow. For a lot of people that’s the situation they see Mastodon in, with their Moby Dick themed aquatic odyssey Leviathon being the popular choice as the albatross around their neck (though some plump for the more feral Remission). It isn’t necessarily that with those two albums they created something untouchable – though admittedly they haven’t scaled those heights since – but that the critical acclaim they garnered not only left them with an intimidating bar to clear but also saw them hand picked by the likes of Metallica and Tool to tour arenas with them. They were being called the natural heirs to these massive selling metal overlords, so it made sense to see them on those sort of stages. On paper. However as amazing as it was their repertoire was not really suited to the setting. They looked a little lost up there, dwarfed by all that extra space. The dense, labyrinthine tracks that had destroyed in clubs around the globe were a little too weird for an audiences unfamiliar with them. Aside from their calling cards Blood and Thunder and maybe March of the Fire Ants there weren’t many hooks for the neophyte to latch onto.
Admirably, they went weirder with follow up Blood Mountain and even though Crack the Skye featured their most obvious shot at a proper single in Oblivion it also featured a couple of 10+ minutes prog tracks about Rasputin’s ghost, so no one could really say they were actively courting a mainstream audience. However with these two albums they rounded off their planned element themed 4 album concept suite. From the follow up, The Hunter, onwards, they’ve gone all out in filling the mega-sized shoes that seemed to be laid out before them.
Cut loose from the tethers of an overarching they concept they seemed to flail somewhat on The Hunter. They seem more comfortable when they were serving some king of higher cause, no matter how ludicrous. Without that they appeared rudderless – The Hunter is a scatter-shot collection marred by weak production which, for the Mastodon faithful at least, felt like an uneasy step towards more accessible terrain. Whilst wasn’t quite a disaster it certainly felt like one at times throughout it’s bloated running time. But then it was voted album of the year by a number of press organisations and sold a shedload of copies, suggesting that it wasn’t the converted they were preaching to anymore. And so Once More Round the Sun continues where The Hunter left off. This is them honing their new sound, taking the technicality and the crunch of old and continuing to inject it full of classic rock tropes of the 70s and 80s. They’ve definitely gotten better at making poppier music – whilst their are a lot of blatant attempts to pen singalong moments here none are as execrable as Curl of the Burl. It sounds like a busted car radio, the loose needle bouncing between 80s hard rock radio and whatever kind of metal station would play old school Mastodon. Their idea of what a big selling metal band should be in 2014 is informed by looking backwards to the mega sized bands of their youth. Ultimately this is kind of disappointing – when they started out they seemed unique and invincible and whilst their were elements of Sabbath and King Crimson and Slayer to them they seemed hell bent and dragging these sounds forward. What they’ve become instead still, to be fair, sounds undoubtedly like Mastodon and no one else, but it lacks that excitement, the unpredictability that made them such a compelling listen. If you’ve been following the band until this point then The Hunter plays out exactly as you’d expect it to, and the surprises that do come sound like bolted on gimmicks that don’t suit them.
I’m thinking specifically of the cheerleader chanting of “Hey ho let’s fucking go/hey ho let’s get up and rock and roll” that crops up at the end of Aunt Lisa. It’s a baffling gag, not least because Mastodon don’t play rock and roll. There’s nothing of youthful rebellion in their sound. It may pack fire but it’s entirely sexless. If they feel looser and more free since ditching the high falutin’ concept stuff they’ve yet to really show it. They’re too precise to let the edges fray, to play loose and sloppy. It’s not to say Mastodon aren’t *fun*, but it’s hardly their natural demeanour. Instead they’re monolithic and inscrutable as ever.
What they do play is a streamlined version of their earlier sound, and for the first few tracks it’s apparent they are at least growing into their new skin. Tread Lightly shows they’re developing a knack for creating hooks without losing the technical prowess that drives their riffs. They keep up the pace and the tunefulness up until Chimes at Midnight – however it’s all played straight with little of the inventiveness they displayed on that 4 album run. All the curveballs they’re willing to throw take place in the extended middle 8s or outros. Even these often sound like call backs to Leviathon/Blood Mountain tracks – like they’ve ground down their old sound and sprinkled it liberally to keep the old fans interested. The other problem they have is that despite having 4 vocalists in action none of them are particularly memorable singers, all working in the same range – since none of them seem willing to grunt or growl like they used to all their vocals blur together. It’s an admirably democratic set up but whilst it worked for them before the lack of a a real focal point has become a weakness now they’re working with more straight forward songsmithery. And without the weird and wonderful cast of characters that populated the stories they used to tell their lyrics also suffer. Trite lines like “what can I say/to make you stay” don’t really have a place in the Mastodon sound – they bounce off their wall of riffery and sound even more awkward than they look written down.
All of which sounds awfully negative. It’s tempting to wheel out a hoary old cliché and ask, “what would this review read like if this were a debut album?” But it isn’t – it’s impossible to consider Once More Round the Sun outside of the context of it suffering in comparison to the iconic monoliths of their past. It does, however, need to be said that this is far from a bad record – I’m not entirely sure they’re capable of making a duff album even if they wanted to. All those early workhorse years paid off handsomely – they’re still one of the tightest, most impressive bands to behold. Even without anything surprising happening there are countless riffs that will raise a smile here, and Brann Dailor remains still one of the most exciting drummers around and one of the rare ones capable of leading from the back and injecting some excitement when things start to lag. Once More Round the Sun is a big step up from The Hunter – the production regains the heft and the weight that The Hunter lacked, and it’s a much more focused listen, with none of that albums low points. They have at least worked out how to maintain consistency without a concept to hang things on.
It also needs to be said that whilst I may be throwing words like ‘poppy’ and ‘accessible’ around it’s not in a pejorative sense – whilst it does mean there’s a lot less risk taking and not enough venom they’re undeniably getting good at what they’ve set out to become. Their most brazenly catchy number, the lead single High Road, has, funnily enough, the most Remission-esque riff of the album bolted onto the biggest hook of a chorus they’ve ever written. It sounds cheesy on first listen, like most good pop hooks do, but it digs it’s way under your skin. Strangely, by displaying the two extremes of their sound side by side, they created one of the best things here. So their headlong rush towards a stadium friendly sound isn’t inherently a bad thing – but it’s a shame that it comes at the expense of some of the bite that made them special. As the album closer Diamond in the Witch House trudges towards the finishing line Neurosis’ Scott Kelly puts in another fine guest appearance growling “we’ll return…to shatter you” – it’s tempting to growl back at the speakers; Go on then. I dare you.
Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but in the meantime Mastodon have bolstered their live set with a few more catchy choruses that will fit neatly into the bigger venues they deserve to be playing. They’ve improved on their last outing and taken a step closer to capturing the catchy middle ground between stadium rock and Neurosis-esque might they seem to be chasing. It’s already topped the metal charts and delighted a few critics, so it would be harsh to call it a failure; taken on it’s own terms it’s very much a success. But when it comes right down to it, in a few years time when you find yourself hankering for a bit of Mastodon, it’s never going to be Once More Around the Sun you find yourself reaching for.