Wednesday, July 2, 2014

album review: 'once more 'round the sun' by mastodon

Okay, here's a trend among some music fans that really pisses me off: when they say they 'hate' or 'can't stand' or 'won't listen' to an entire genre of music except one or two artists. And believe me, this is a lot more common than you think - how many people have you encountered who say, "Oh, I hate rap, but I listen to Eminem or Drake"? Or "I can't stand country... but you know, Luke Bryan or that band that did that 'Cruise' song, they're alright'? Or "I won't listen to metal... but you know, AC/DC and Metallica are good, I like them."

Now this tends to happen to metal more often than the other way around, mostly because to some extent, metal and harsher music in this vein are still somewhat considered as 'outsider' genres, particularly with the decline of rock radio. Metal doesn't have the vast mainstream culture-defining appeal of hip-hop or EDM or even country - at least right now - and that means the genre tends to get cherry picked by folks who only catch the few metal songs that crossover onto mainstream radio, or some token appreciation for the greats. And in my opinion, it's absolute garbage, mostly because it's a position taken out of ignorance. How the hell do you know you can't stand metal until you hear more than just what might cross over? How do you know you don't like the rest of the big four if you 'only' like Metallica? How do you know you don't like Nightwish or Within Temptation if you 'only' like Evanescence? There are plenty of entry points into the metal genre, and it's infuriating to see the genre marginalized and treated reductively by people who won't go further out of their comfort zone.

So why rant about this at all? Well, for the longest time, the 'beach-head' metal band that got accepted by the indie, Pitchfork-reading crowd was Mastodon - and the more I think about it, the more this band becoming the critically accepted jump-on point makes little sense. Sure, they're critically acclaimed - and they deserve it - but Mastodon land on the border between progressive metal and sludge metal, two genres that aren't exactly easy nuts to crack with time-signature bending melodies, punishingly heavy tones, and complex drum and guitar progressions. And also on that note, Mastodon are goddamn nuts, and I mean that as a high compliment, a band known for free-association lyrics and concept records that are absolutely bonkers by most conventional standards of storytelling. 

And yet that seemed to change a bit with their 2011 album 'The Hunter', their most accessible album to that date... and also their least interesting. I'm not calling the record bad, because there were certainly plenty of moments I really liked, but the choice to opt for a mid-tempo pace, simpler melodies, and much cleaner vocals saw a lot of their songwriting come into sharper view on that record, and, well, it lacked a certain punch for me. What made early Mastodon records so striking was the word choice - it lent the albums a certain primal rage to use such precisely chosen words, and with The Hunter, the shift here just didn't click for me as well. But with interviews suggesting that the new album was going to be circling back to some of their older material with their newest album Once More 'Round The Sun, I was curious to see how the album would turn out. Did Mastodon manage to recapture their former success?

Well, to some extent, I think they did, but I can't help but feel a little underwhelmed by this record, especially in comparison with their earlier material. It is a better record than The Hunter, don't get me wrong, and for the most part, I still liked Once More 'Round The Sun, but it's only a pretty damn good record where it could have been a great one, and that's a little exasperating. In other words, I wanted to like this album a little more than I do, even though I do think it's a good step in the new direction Mastodon is looking to pursue.

And it definitely is a new direction, because at this point, Mastodon seems to be wanting to directly walk the line between commercially accessible hard rock and the more progressive material of their early years - and honestly, for a band that has such a gift for incredibly catchy melody lines and keeping their experimental elements cohesive, this isn't exactly a bad choice. For me, the melodies that really struck me was the minor-chord saturated punch of 'Tread Lightly' - helped a great deal by the jangling strumming of the intro - the prog-inspired progression of 'Asleep In The Deep', the thick melodic riffs of 'Halloween' with some great fast-paced bass work, and the explosive crunch of 'High Road'. And as always, it's all anchored by Brann Dailor's experimental and textured drumwork that adds a ton of pummeling momentum to this record. And it's nice to see some of the more experimental elements coalesce well too: the spacey synths courtesy of guest Ikey Owens are a great touch to 'Asleep In The Deep', and the guitar tonal switch-ups on Halloween for the solos are pretty damn awesome. That said, there are two production elements that did irk me a little, the first being the attempts to vary the vocal production with fade in elements on 'The Motherload' or some of the grimier filters used, which felt both unnecessary and unwanted, especially when the band's vocals have long proven appropriately visceral and on songs like 'Feast Your Eyes', they felt submerged. Granted, they were preferable to the female crowd vocals on 'Aunt Lisa', which really lacked the force to balance out the rest of the track. A larger issue I had was with the lead guitar at points feeling a little drowned out by the rhythm guitar - maybe it was just a matter of tonal choice, but when you're gunning for more melodic, hook-heavy hard rock and metal, that should not be happening. 

But then again, the more I keep listening through this record, the less I'm sure that's Mastodon's plans, and some of that comes down to the vocals, which range between more clean singing, the guttural roars that defined early Mastodon, and even some shrieked vocals, all of which had all of the charisma and power that has always distinguished Mastodon. The constant shifts in vocal production depth and style did make for a slightly uneven listen, but for the most part it worked. What it did seem to reflect which songs would be pushed to radio and which would be saved for the old-school fans, and it made me wonder if Mastodon was going for a more cohesive project, it might have suited them better to pick one style and stick with it all the way through. And on that note, I'd be remiss not to mention the rather abrupt endings that many of these songs have on this record - Mastodon have always been known for mid-song shifts in tempo and time signature, but these struck me as more of ending the song precisely when the ideas ran out.

Thankfully, there do seem to be more cohesion in the ideas brought to the table on this record than The Hunter, which brings us to lyrics and themes. Mastodon have gone on record stating that this album is exploring the concepts of death and the inexorable passage of time, and to their credit, their lyrics do a pretty solid job capturing some of the emotional depth beneath such concepts, albeit with an odd confrontational edge to some tracks, with Mastodon almost placing demands for realism and courage in the face of darkness, even against forces they might not be able to fight. Songs like the Shakespearean 'Chimes At Midnight', the paranoid 'Asleep In The Deep', the desperation of 'Ember City', and the eerie darkness of 'Halloween' add a lot of colour to how one deals with that sort of darkness, or if you even can. What I like about this record is that it doesn't shy away from the uncertainty that comes with death and the passage of time, focusing most on when they go into that good night, they'll do so on their terms and in their own way.

Now that said, lyrically this album doesn't exactly have the visceral punch of previous Mastodon releases, and it's in the songwriting where the gulf between hard rock and metal is most defined. Like with The Hunter, the lyrics are more structured, but at the same time they often ring as a little vague, lacking the immediacy and wallop that defined early Mastodon work. The most egregious example of this comes in 'The Motherload', which even by hard rock standards feels awfully close to a generic empowerment anthem. On top of that, I'm still not quite sure that more structured lyrics work as well for Mastodon's more blunt form of songwriting, as it can make some songs come across as lacking a little description. But then again, this might be the big prog metal side of me coming through, because I can't help but wish that this record actually took their 'passage of time' motifs and fashioned it into a narrative or richer concept, because as it is, it feels a little disjointed.

To pull all of this together, Mastodon has the sound of a band who is trying to walk the line between hard rock and prog/sludge metal, and while this record is more consistent, well-written, and hook-laden than The Hunter, I'm not quite sure Mastodon has nailed the balance quite yet. The lack of a tighter concept leaves much of this record feeling a little unfocused, and it leaves me feeling that for a band with so much instrumental expertise that they could push themselves further if not aiming for mainstream radio. That said, writing rock music for the radio is often exceptionally difficult in its own right, and I can't deny Mastodon brings a certain instrumental heft to the table regardless. So with that in mind, I'm giving this record a solid 7/10 and definitely a recommendation. And while I don't quite enjoy Once More 'Round The Sun as much as their early work, it's still great metal and definitely worth your time, so check it out.

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