After making involved concept records about earth, fire, water, and the universe, respectively, where does a band go?
As it headed into sessions for its fifth studio album, the question loomed for Mastodon, which took imaginative themes about as far as any group can without invoking parody. Little surprise, then, that The Hunter is a transitional effort and the most stripped-back release since the Atlanta quartet’s 2002 debut. Unencumbered by narratives, the collective seems at times to exhale sighs of relief as well as recognize the sense of freedom gleaned from a back-to-basics approach.
Not that the band abandons creative growth and challenging experimentation. However, the will to push boundaries and demand to explore ambitious territory assume a lower priority. Liberated from a high-pressure atmosphere, Mastodon relaxes and lets fly—occasionally channeling pent-up energy or emitting aggression simply for the sake of doing so. The strategy owes less to letting down one’s guard and more to rediscovering skill sets and fundamental reasons to play music. Of course, the danger with such tactics lies with recycling the past and/or settling for what comes easy.
Coming from an ensemble that’s made mind-melting concoctions in the form of “Circle of Cysquatch” and “The Last Baron,” new fare like “Curl of the Burl” and “Thickening” register as repeat activities, the type of exercises expected from ersatz artists that mimic Mastodon’s moves. It’s hard not to think that the underwhelming fare is a rushed consequence of a tireless band that should’ve taken more time to reenergize after issuing its previous album and staging subsequent tours. And on a 13-song set that logs in at 53 minutes, a bit of trimming wouldn’t hurt.
Thankfully, throwaway tracks are an exception on The Hunter, the strengths of which are (again) Brann Dailor’s battery of dynamic drumming as well as concise, get-in-get-out episodes that last just long enough to allow listeners to picture how pieces fall into place, ala to a rapid-paced Tetris game, before the music either explodes or slugs you in the craw. Psychedelic elements abound, whether on “Stargasm,” an into-the-void hypnosis that practically demands incense be lit and gongs struck, or during “The Sparrow,” a hefty tune influenced by early Pink Floyd.
Resembling the agitated commotion of bumblebees shaken in a Mason jar, “All the Heavy Lifting” references traditional Mastodon lyrical touchstones of mountains and oceans, the song’s hook-and-ladder construction and pent-up suspense ceding ground before getting trampled underfoot. Few bands manage to shape viscous heaviness into fluid, airy, and breathable patterns. Quick arpeggios, wah-wah guitar solos, and jazz-infected percussive fills open up valleys bathed in light and shade. “Bedzazzled Fingernails” capitalizes on such detours, the song scampering through craggy sonic jungles that conjure the grand hedge maze—and the characters’ sense of desperation—in “The Shining.”
Films also come to mind in “Creature Lives,” which plays as an indirect tribute to 60s-era drive-in monster flicks. Beginning with madcap laughter and manipulated frequency effects, the song represents yet another change for Mastodon, as its glam-rock accents and choral chant vocals confirm the group’s capacity to surprise, refresh, and invent remains unabated. —Bob Gendron