Mastodon: THE HUNTER

Fri Nov 11 2011

Clearly (mercifully?), everyone has blocked nü-metal from memory, like a teenage car crash or any other traumatic experience. How else can we explain the classification of The Hunter as “stoner” or “progressive”? Should we also rewrite history so that Sevendust and Puddle Of Mudd and Godsmack are actually “sludge metal”? The world of metal terminology was complicated enough before hipsters co-opted black metal and made it “transcendental”. But kudos to the old-school headbangers for not caring enough to bother getting up in arms about Mastodon’s transition from heavy prog to FM rock. What’s the point? The band is the most likely culprit for turning the Pitchfork crowd onto metal in the first place; as far back as 2006, Mastodon was the extreme band just palatable and critically-acclaimed enough to not scare indie rockers away, and that’s still pretty much the case.

The degree to which Mastodon has changed its style between albums is an impressive creative feat; the music itself, for the most part, is not. 2009’s Crack The Skye lifted most of its riffs from either Iron Maiden or the four horsemen of thrash, twisting them into slightly different but predictable forms, and I spent months feeling guilty for hating this well-publicized tribute to drummer Brann Dailor’s sister Skye, who committed suicide at age 14. The Hunter splits the difference between 80s Ozzy and Disturbed, and now I get to feel guilty for hating it, since its title is a reference to the sudden death of guitarist Brent Hinds’ brother while hunting. Overall its sound is significantly more original than its predecessor, but that’s just not saying much.

There are several thrilling musical moments on the album, stuff that riles up an animalistic reaction in your gut if you’re prone to that sort of thing. The harrowing riffage that makes up the meat of “All The Heavy Lifting” and “The Ruiner” and the end of “Spectrelight” is powerful stuff, and there’s some fantastic melodic lead guitar work in the title track and “The Sparrow”, which is probably the album’s highlight; it’s an impeccable slab of 90s-ish hard rock candy. But too often (“Black Tongue”, “Thickening” or “Deathbound” for example), it seems like Dailor is showing off; he’s too ambitious to fit the music, like Buckethead trilling over a Melvins dirge. And then they imitate the spacey intro from Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner” and use it at the beginning of “Creature Lives”?? I’m sorry; I can’t handle it, or the clownishly silly vocals for that matter.

In the end, I have to admit that my preconceptions have sabotaged my propensity to enjoy this album; the nü-metal stench is too strong. Maybe if I could look at it like the metal equivalent of Ariel Pink’s Before Today, an impossibly fresh and vital homage to vintage cheese, I could love it, but I don’t think for a second that that was Mastodon’s intention. I don’t believe there’s any irony behind Hinds’ and Troy Sanders’ relentless Ozzy impersonations (yes, both of them). I think these guys believe, just like they did on Skye, that they’re creating a brand new sound, and that the selective memory of our collective consciousness allows for them to think so. And none of that makes The Hunter a bad album at all. It’s a pretty good album that I just can’t stomach at all.

Or, perhaps Mike Diver, writing for BBC Music, said it best: “Don’t like metal? You might just love Mastodon.”

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