The evolution that Mastodon began almost fifteen years ago, continues in 2014 as they prepare to drop their newest album. Along the way there have been few easy roads taken, and any battles won were well-earned on their climb to success. Certainly no one who started out with the band in their early days would have predicted where they would be today as a major international headliner, but this is where they are. As the band has grown they have picked up some new fans along the way who seemed to click with the newer, psychedelic rock vibes of their last few albums, while some die-hard lovers of their sludgy early forays have abandoned ship. That was bound to happen. If you stopped liking this band around the time of Crack The Skye, Once More Around The Sun (Reprise) will likely not see you make a return. However, if you have followed their entire oeuvre from the start and stayed, or came in as of late, this album has your name all over it.
Feeling like an erstwhile greatest hits album of tracks you have never heard before, there is a familiarity to the songs on Once More…. that calls to mind the best moments of the bands’ career. Even if it wasn’t intended, it has an odd effect on the listener. On one hand there is a comfort to this, like “Oh hey! I remember when they did that before!” The other effect is when the band goes back outside of the box yet again, it seems even a little more way out than before. Not every band can pull this off mind you, but the guys in Mastodon learned from their idols (mainly Neurosis and The Melvins) how to break down the machine of creativity, and build it back up again like few other modern bands do. For better or worse they always reinvent themselves slightly with each new outing and they do it selfishly, not the fans or their label. Take that for what it’s worth, this is what they do best.
And now for the music. When the band said earlier in the year that this album was a continuation of 2012’s The Hunter, they weren’t kidding. Although this album is a little less fuzzy and bright sounding than its forerunner, there is a ton of catchy prog and stoner grooves on this album to satisfy. The middle eastern-tinged guitars that open ‘Tread Lightly’ actually remind me of the opening of the Jonah Hex movie soundtrack Mastodon did a few years ago. This brief intro gives way to a driving rock anthem with some urgency. Bassist Troy Sanders and his dusky vocals dominate the track. So slick changes in the pre-chorus and bridge are typical of most Mastodon’s better releases. As usual, about ¾ of the way through the track Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher just go to town with layers of neat guitar parts. With almost no let up, ‘The Motherload’, also rocks. Drummer Brann Dailor’s lead vocals are stunning, the way they were in ‘Oblivion’. They knocked me out of my seat, as does his entire performance here. Impossibly, he continues to get better and better all around, every time. The first single ‘High Road’ comes next and in the context of the first two tracks, its welcome grooves bring us back down to earth a little bit. Totally obtuse and weird, the title track will leave your jaw agape. It definitely calls to mind Remission and Leviathan (both Relapse), but also has the prog factor of their recent work too. I was also surprised by the track’s brevity too, but for once the band of high-minded idealists gives you the Cliff’s Notes. And if it hasn’t set in by now, the concept of this album is time, life, and loss, and acceptance; as these are the things marking the lives of the Mastodonians for the last few years.
‘Chimes At Midnight’ has a touch of the old Mastodon in its DNA too. Fabulous string skipping guitar riffs, tribal beats and stellar vocals comprise the track. By now, the three-headed King Ghidorah monster vocals of Sanders, Hinds, and Dailor can rival any band for their ability to bring a variety of chops to the table. ‘Chimes…’ also has a musical and lyrical call-out to fan favorite ‘Hearts Alive’, which may explain why that song returned to the set list on their last US tour. Meanwhile ‘Asleep In the Deep’ mines some new ground melodically, while going with some staple song structures: call and response like vocals, and a nautical beat. Hinds just glows on this one, with his soulful crooning in full effect.
‘Feast Your Eyes’ is a raucous feeling song with a lot of twists and turns, but left me a bit flat as a trying-too-hard progressive/psychedelic rock tune. ‘Aunt Lisa’ was shaping up to be one of the best tracks on the album until the clunky ending gang vocals just made me cold. The Coathangers do the cheerleader-esque chant, but I feel this is better left to Faith No More and even Marilyn Manson; and adds some unnecessary schlock value to an otherwise good song. These represent the only less than par moments of the record for me.
Returning to form, ‘Ember City’ is transcendent, and a special song in the band’s history. When they do everything right, this band can give you chills. This is a great song on every level and I hope they add it to the set list when they tour behind this album. ‘Halloween’ follows quickly with yet another, killer fast song with great signing, baddass solos and basically a lot of head-banging material. ‘Diamond In The Witch House’ is another collaboration with Scott Kelly of Neurosis, once again it’s a marriage made in hell. Troy and Scott trade vocals in a way that just contrasts the other so perfectly, you wonder why Scott doesn’t just join this band already too, until you remember he has two other bands. The song itself is excellent and almost would be a more fitting title track for OMATS.
While still lacking the fierceness of their earlier rage-fests, the new Mastodon album is definitely worth a listen if you can forgive them their emotive, proggy trespasses.
KEITH (KEEFY) CHACHKES