Earlier in 2017, Mastodon released Emperor of Sand. It was the first concept album they’d done since 2009’s Crack the Skye, and like that album, it was also partially inspired by the death of a loved one. Regardless of how well the story for Emperor of Sand worked as a narrative or as a musical work (and opinions on that are definitely split), the band had a leftover song that ultimately didn’t fit on the album. Turns out they also had three other extra tracks from 2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun that didn’t make the cut on that album, and together those four songs comprise the new EP Cold Dark Place.
The band insists that these tracks are not b-sides. Rather, they are orphans that didn’t fit the mood of their respective albums. That is pretty apparent after listening to them. “Toe to Toes”, the holdover from Emperor of the Sand, is certainly an outlier. It opens with a simple, major key folky guitar riff doubled on acoustic and clean electric guitars. This riff lasts a grand total of eight seconds before the full Mastodon roar kicks in. Except the swirling, speedy arpeggio remains in a major key, definitely an unusual choice for the band, even considering the expanded sonic palette of their second decade. Bassist Troy Sanders uses his bellow of a voice in a soaring, positive way instead of his usual sinister sneer. The song shifts to a less busy, more grooving feel in the chorus, when guitarist Brent Hinds takes over the vocals. The band even throws in a bit of vocal harmony at the end of the refrain, which carries over into the quick second verse. Eventually the song pushes into an uptempo, driving bridge that lets drummer Brann Dailor show off a bit. But it decelerates right back to the chorus afterward before ending on a brief guitar solo.
“Toe to Toes” has all the hallmarks of a great Mastodon single, except that its extensive use of major key makes it unusual among their discography. It might’ve fit among the various oddball experiments of 2011’s The Hunter, but sonically it is not quite right for Emperor of Sand, even when compared to that album’s big, catchy single “Show Yourself.” It’s a much more accomplished song than some of those tracks from The Hunter, though, demonstrating a much better synthesis of the band’s traditional style with major key guitar riffs and vocal melodies.
The other three songs on Cold Dark Place each have things to recommend them and reasons they didn’t work with Once More ‘Round the Sun‘s set of metal barnburners. Usually those reasons have to do with tempo and mood. The most striking is closer “Cold Dark Place”, which begins as a downtempo, acoustic dirge and largely sticks with that feeling through its six-minute running time, even when the rhythm section comes in. Hinds’ tendency to sing through his nose perfectly fits the mournful self-pitying tone of the lyrics as he works through the end of a relationship. The song eventually grows into a loud, Opeth-style climax where the bass and rhythm guitar sit on a great, slow, heavy riff while the lead guitar solos away.
“North Side Star” and “Blue Walsh” aren’t quite as effective as the EP’s other two tracks, but they are songs that showcase different sides of the band. “North Side Star” is another slow one, cut through with acoustic guitar and keyboard work as the electric guitars strum easily and Dailor keeps the drums simple. Hinds again takes lead vocals while Dailor provides some solid harmonies throughout. At a little past the halfway point, the song jumps into a more energetic phase, as Dailor’s drums get more complicated and the guitar and bass get a real groove going. And then it drifts back into the earlier feel, albeit with an extended guitar solo instead of vocals.
“Blue Walsh” has verse vocals from Dailor, who always gives the band its cleanest, most decipherable singing. Hinds sings lead on the refrain, which has a nice, catchy melody. Bu this is the song on the EP that most feels like an actual b-side. It’s fine but not particularly memorable for its first two-thirds, where the most notable thing is that it is conspicuously missing Mastodon’s usual roar (of guitars, drums, and vocals). The final third features the band launching into a high-speed coda where Sanders shows up to bellow and the roar is restored. And then the wall of sound gradually fades away into the original riff as the song’s outro.
Cold Dark Place is essential listening for any Mastodon fans who have followed the band into the 2010’s without an excess of griping. Folks who are still waiting for the band to go back and do another Leviathan or Blood Mountain, this maybe isn’t for you. But “Toe to Toes” and “Cold Dark Place” are top-notch songs for the band and rival anything off of Emperor of Sand for best Mastodon tracks of 2017.