Mastodon's 'Medium Rarities' Could've Used More Substance
Medium Rarities is the kind of album that will appeal mostly to longtime Mastodon fans.
11 September 2020
Medium Rarities is Mastodon's first odds and ends compilation. With a career spanning two decades, it seems the band would have a lot of interesting extraneous material available for this sort of release, but it turns out there really isn't that much. 2006's Call of the Mastodon and 2017's EP Cold Dark Place fulfilled many of the kind of functions a B-side compilation does, serving as an early career overview and a one-off stylistic departure, respectively. What Medium Rarities gives the listener is 16 tracks and 70 minutes of music, but only half of the record will be fresh for most fans.
Let's start with the originals. The album opens with "Fallen Torches", a new track intended to be a promotional single released in conjunction with the band's planned 2020 European tour. Obviously, that tour never happened, leaving the song to be the lead single for Medium Rarities. It's a pretty typical Mastodon rager, with punishing riffs, hyperactive drum fills from Brann Dailor, harshly bellowed verses and a chorus from Neurosis vocalist Scott Kelly (making his requisite once an album guest appearance) that approaches catchy without actually getting there. It has an effective bridge where the song slows down and gets quiet, gradually increasing in volume as bassist Troy Sanders yells his head off before kicking back into the main riff. Then, as quickly as the riff returns, the band jumps away into a chugging new coda to close out the song. "Fallen Torches" is a solid song, but it isn't particularly noteworthy in the band's catalog.
All the way down at track eight, we get another original, "Atlanta" featuring Butthole Surfers vocalist Gibby Haynes. The track was first released as part of the Adult Swim singles series, and it finds the band inspired by Butthole Surfers' hyperactive noise-punk style. It's a driving punk track with much more simple playing than the usual Mastodon fare. Haynes introduces the song by saying, "There are those who are born to be winners, and then there are these guys." He shows up again in the bridge of the track doing his trademark fast, nearly incomprehensible speak-singing. This is exactly the kind of cool digression that perfectly fits a compilation, and tracks 10 and 12 follow suit.
"Cut You Up With a Linoleum Knife" is a caustic two-minute track written initially for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie, a parody of the classic "Let's All Go to the Lobby" cartoon with singing popcorn and drinks. The band spend the entire song threatening the audience with grievous bodily harm if they do things like talk, make out, or illegally record the movie. It loses something without the animation, but it's still a lot of dark fun. The song "White Walker", on the other hand, is much calmer and more considered. Mastodon were one of several musical acts to appear on HBO's Game of Thrones and record a version of one of the folk songs described in George R.R. Martin's original novels. The band heavily employs acoustic guitars and features a lot of excellent singing, traditionally Mastodon's biggest weakness. It eventually grows into a noisy, electric climax, but the song builds carefully to that point, and it's interesting hearing them try something so different.
The other notable points of interest on Medium Rarities are the covers. Arriving in the penultimate slot on the album is the band's take on Metallica's classic instrumental "Orion". If you want to hear Mastodon doing a note for note cover version, you're in luck. Otherwise, this is a song that was undoubtedly a lot of fun for the band to play and a pretty cool experience if you happened to see them play it live. As an album track, though, its appeal is limited.
More interesting are the Feist and Flaming Lips songs. "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton", from the Lips' beloved critical and fan-favorite album The Soft Bulletin, is also essentially a straight cover, complete with shimmering piano and keyboards. But hearing the band play an indie rock song and how close they get to Wayne Coyne's unique vocal style is pretty impressive. "A Commotion" takes a Feist song where much of the intensity comes from the piano and orchestral strings and gives it the full Mastodon treatment. Heavy guitars and pounding drums all around make it a song that could easily pass for a Mastodon original, albeit one from the latter half of their career.
The remaining nine tracks on Medium Rarities are live and instrumental takes of existing Mastodon album cuts. The five live songs come from the band's relatively early days. There's "Circle of Cysquatch", "Crystal Skull", and "Capillarian Crest" from Blood Mountain, and "Blood and Thunder" and "Iron Tusk" from Leviathan. These are all good recordings and intense live performances, although not all that different from the album versions. "Capillarian Crest" is a personal favorite here, just because that song is such a fast, technical workout that hearing it live is especially impressive. "Blood and Thunder" also is great because "Blood and Thunder", with that simple but awesome main guitar riff, is always great.
The instrumental material all comes from the band's second decade. The four songs here seem to be chosen to highlight Mastodon's arranging and songwriting skills, which are readily apparent. The eight-minute "Jaguar God" goes through a progression of musical changes that are maybe easier to hear without focusing on the vocals.
Cold Dark Place standout "Toe to Toes" is catchy and exciting, highlighting the melodic changes of the song, but it misses the vocals. "Asleep in the Deep" and "Halloween" both work quite well, too. But these are all more curiosities than something most listeners will want to revisit again and again.
Medium Rarities is the kind of album that will appeal mostly to longtime Mastodon fans, and even then only marginally so. The four originals and three covers are worth assembling in one place, but the other nine tracks feel more like filler than really worthwhile additional material. The band's "Rufus Lives", from the recent movie Bill and Ted Face the Music, is another propulsive heavy song that definitely would've merited inclusion here had the release timing worked out better. Although, I would've swapped it out with "Circle of Cysquatch. Medium Rarities resembles a lot of B-side compilations in that it's the kind of album fans will listen to two or three or times before quietly putting on the (virtual) shelf, not often to be revisited.
- Hearts Alive: An Interview with Mastodon - PopMatters ›
- Mastodon: Crack the Skye - PopMatters ›
- Mastodon: Once More 'Round the Sun - PopMatters ›
- Mastodon: Cold Dark Place EP (review) - PopMatters ›
- Mastodon: Live at Brixton - PopMatters ›
- Mastodon: The Hunter - PopMatters ›
- Mastodon: Blood Mountain - PopMatters ›
- Mastodon: Live at the Aragon - PopMatters ›
- A Conversation With Bill Kelliher of Mastodon ›