Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Mastodon - Once More 'Round The Sun
In 2006, Mastodon released Blood Mountain, the first metal album I bought and one that was hugely instrumental in my becoming the metalhead I am today; two years prior the band had released Leviathan, an album that wound up not only on many an Album of the Year list, but also quite a few Album of the Decade lists as well. In 2009, the band released quite possibly my favorite album ever, the brilliant Crack the Skye, and then in 2011 the enjoyable-if-unspectacular The Hunter. This mini history lesson serves two purposes: First, it lays my Mastodon fandom right there on the table, in the open, before I go any further with this review. Second, it's there to point out that after a trio of albums most bands would kill for, Mastodon sort of took a step back with The Hunter. It's a fun album, one that's quite good at times, but it still stands as the weak link in what was one of the strongest discographies in 21st century metal, and for the first time, allowed just a sliver of doubt to approach the band. Their new album, Once More 'Round the Sun, represents the band at a crossroads: would they return to being one of the pioneers of American metal, seemlessly blending genres while creating classic albums? Or would they continue to drift toward fun yet forgettable records, made up of a hodge podge of rock-metal tracks?
Somewhat disappointingly, the answer is closer to the latter. Once More 'Round the Sun is a better album than The Hunter, though it has far fewer individual catchy songs, but it doesn't come anywhere near Mastodon's 2004-2009 output. The songs still feel a bit more rock than metal, but the band also brings back a lot of the sludgy, Southern tropes that have been missing since Blood Mountain. If it sounds like I'm mixing praise and criticism intermittently, that's because Once More... seems to exist in a state of contradiction. Take "Aunt Lisa," a track of the album's mostly sub-par second half: for nearly the entirety of the song, the band roars along, Brent Hinds' and Bill Keihler's guitars racing over Bran Dailor's frantic drumming and Troy Sanders' grooving bass. The first four minutes of the song are a perfect example of everything Mastodon does well on records: vocal harmonies soaring over incredible guitar melodies, roaring vocals over blasting drums, a heavy metal tornado laying waste to the small town of your eardrums. And then, inexplicably, what sounds like a children's choir pops up chanting "Hey! Ho! Let's fucking go! Hey! Ho! Let's get up and rock and roll!" And then the song ends. It sounds like something Jane's Addiction or the Red Hot Chili Peppers would have done in 1995, and it completely ruins the song.
There are some truly great moments on the album though; "Tread Lightly," "The Motherload," "Ember City," and the aformentioned beginning of "Aunt Lisa" are vintage Mastodon, blending beefy riffs with a killer rhythm section and a variety of vocal stylings that complement the music excellently (even if there's next to no chance the band will be able to pull them off live). Scott Kelly of Neurosis turns his now obligatory (and welcome!) vocal cameo on the album's closer "Diamond in the Witch House," and it's probably his best work with Mastodon outside of the title track on Crack the Skye. Apart from those songs, there are moments in "High Road," "Feast Your Eyes," "Chimes at Midnight," an the title track that are also above average and entertaining. In fact, I think the largest problem with Once More 'Round the Sun is the fact that it's a Mastodon album, and they've proven multiple times that they're capable of pulling a Deafheaven and making metal and non-metal fans alike stand up and take notice of what they're doing... and with that pedigree in mind, Once More 'Round the Sun misses the mark.
I'm not a musician. I have no idea how to write songs, riffs, lyrics... part of the reason I love music so much is my awe at what bands and musicians are doing, the feeling of "Oh my god, HOW is he making that guitar do THAT?!?!" So I'm hesitant to critique a band on their work, let alone their process. But as a huge Mastodon fan, I can't help but notice that their recent, two-album downturn has coincided with their move away from concept albums. I don't think they are a concept-only band by any means, but I do wonder if having the backbone of a singular story or idea permeating the entiirety of an album from the beginning of the writing process is what brings out their best work. I have no idea if this is the case, or if it's just random coincidence, but Mastodon has put out six albums thus far, and the three with a concept are far superior to the three without one.
I'm probably being too harsh, for largely selfish reasons. I love Mastodon, and I want to be able to point to the records they make, shove them in the faces of everyone who sneers about how Mastodon is "Rolling Stone metal" and say "Fuck you! Do you hear this?!?! Mastodon fucking rocks!!!" For the eight years I'd call myself a serious metal fan, Mastodon's been right there with me like your favorite crazy uncle who took you on his motorcycle and gave you weed when you were seventeen. I want them to get back to making amazing, all-time classic albums because I want them to be the best metal band in the world, because they're important to me. It's a completely irrational, totally self-centered way to view a band's output, and one that's really hard to separate from the critical aspects of listening to an album. But that's what being a music fan is really, truly about: enjoying music without comparing it to this or that or that or this. I can't tell you that Once More 'Round the Sun is the best album ever, or even one of the best albums I've heard this year, but I can say with near certainty that I'll probably listen to it twice a week for the next few months because it's a fun, enjoyable record that's arrived just in time for summer barbecues and basketball games. And who knows? Maybe some unknowing kid will hear "High Road" on the radio, and because it's like nothing he's heard before he'll buy the album and a new metal fan will be born. It may not be a paradigm shift in the world of metal, but that's still pretty fuckin' cool to me.