Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Is Mastodon changing its sound so it can become a bigger band, or are commercial tastes leaning more towards what the group was going to do anyway?
Well, metalheads of the world, here is the new Mastodon album, the long-awaited, hotly anticipated follow-up to the highly lauded Crack the Skye. All hopes are pinned on this one making Mastodon one of the biggest names in not only metal but in all of rock, finally living up to the potential that the group has been demonstrating over the course of the last decade of its existence. And the surprising thing is that this album just might do it. Unfortunately, it might not be for the right reasons.
For those of you who are big Mastodon fans, you may know that the band's first four albums are very loosely centered around the four classical elements of fire, water, earth and air, respectively. With that unifying theme having dried up with this, their fifth album, the band was freed up to try new and exciting things. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the execution; will the band veer off into uncharted waters and end up catching a number of big fish, or will they stumble around in the dark with their shoes untied? This album, which is largely a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" affair, is a pretty even mixture of both approaches. When you add to the cocktail the presence of producer Mike Elizondo, best known for a number of pop and hip hop hits, as well as increased exposure that is inevitably coupled with commercial pressures, we end up getting an album from a band that seems certainly capable, but more confused than anything.
The overall sound of the album is quite a bit sleeker than previous albums, both in production as well as composition; the full-metal bore of Leviathan is long gone, as the guitars still sound like a buzzsaw, but cut more like a butter knife. The harshness that enveloped them strictly in the metal camp has been polished a bit. Likewise, the most proggy elements of Crack the Skye, such as the multi-part, epic song structures and the neo-baroque harmonic indulgences are also mostly gone, replaced by relatively simple verse-chorus forms coupled with bluesy pentatonic riffs, exemplified in lead single "Curl of the Burl", a song that sounds like an amped-up Skynyrd outtake. Not a bad song in the slightest, and actually quite a catchy, hummable tune for a band known largely for dauntless aggression. This song is undoubtedly an attempt at some kind of crossover success, which will more than likely cause a few rabid fans to yell "Sellout!", but the truth is that, while pretty tame by Mastodon standards, the song is still a lot heavier than the vast majority of what's on the radio and will probably not land these guys in the same circles as your Lady Gagas and Maroon 5s. So quit your worryin'.
Since opener "Black Tongue" is more or less in the vein of classic Mastodon, sounding like something that would've been snuggled somewhere on Blood Mountain, "Curl of the Burl" is the first point on the album where it is apparent that Mastodon is sticking its tusks in some very different snowbanks. The other experiments that work, such as the terrific "Blasteroid" and "Octopus Has No Friends", show a band taking some really interesting and rewarding risks. These two songs take the Mastodon staples of frenetic, tricky riffing, coupled with balls-out rhythm and feel shifts, and pull-off a simple trick by placing them in the context of a major key, making the entire Mastodon sound come off as something fresh.
Other experiments, though, are merely average and more evident of a band that doesn't really know which direction it wants to go in. These songs tend to borrow rather heavily from other bands, the most blatant being "Dry Bone Valley" taking several cues from Alice In Chains, right down to the wah solo that seems lifted directly off of the latter band's "Them Bones". Other songs owe more to contemporary bands, like fellow Georgians and contenders for the crown of sludge-metal kings, Baroness. Their influence appears most prominently on the slower passages of "Stargasm" and "Creature Lives", the latter being one of the weaker tracks on the album, a bizarre nursery rhyme with an overly long synth intro that might as well be taken out of a bag of frivolous, annoying Pink Floyd tricks. The oddest homage on the album is the final track "The Sparrow", a metallized version of Fleet Foxes right down to a harmonized, a cappella outro. A strange choice to end the album.
A few of the tracks are downright boring, and definitely feel like filler: "'Thickening" is based around a dull blues riff, and "Bedazzled Fingernails" and the title track feel like castoffs from other albums. These three tracks show a band not quite ready to dive into something totally new, and not yet capable of making an entire album's worth of vibrant, vivacious new music.
And with this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that the best tracks are the ones that do accurately and excitingly mimic the Mastodon of yore. "All the Heavy Lifting" would've fit in both thematically and in terms of heaviness on Leviathan, the band's finest album, while "Spectrelight" continues the band's tradition of having its good friend Scott Kelly of Neurosis lend a hand on vocals. They put their best effort forward on his behalf, and this is the best track by an overwhelming margin as a result. For some reason, two other tracks ("Deathbound" and "The Ruiner") were relegated to the status of bonus tracks as opposed to ending up on the album, which is a shame, since both of them easily trump the vast majority of what made the cut.
Overall, this album is sure to divide opinion on the band and its future; it will more than likely continue to raise Mastodon's star higher in the sky, enough to get the non-metalheads interested, but not enough to pull the group completely out of the sludge where it belongs and where it works best. The experiment was not a total failure, and the moments of success inspire hope that next time around, these guys will live up to their absolute fullest potential, something that they've come close to but have yet to reach. With a little more focus and precision, they will undoubtedly pull it off. As for right now, this album is a decent chronicle of a sojourn in progress.