Mastodon committed the cardinal sin when they released The Hunter. By forgoing their grand progressive illusions and releasing a razor sharp collection of quick fire hits-in-waiting, they baited backlash. The standard bearers for intellectualized, deeply technical, epics had concerned themselves with writing pop songs. In a different era metal fans would have screamed “sacrilege” and “sell outs”, but contrary to all expectation, no one batted an eyelid. Mastodon are not beyond reproach – although they are certainly figures of adoration – instead the Atlanta four piece proved that there is nothing wrong with writing helter-skelter anthems and that getting to the point, is not the same as dumbing down.
Once More Round The Sun suggests no change in Mastodon’s direction of travel, but it does throw up, if not their first major roadblocks, then at least a few bumps in the road. Mastodon remain elegant in their brutality - “Feast Your Eyes” sees the band effortlessly transitioning between break neck doom-laden professions and winding delicacy – but is noticeable how paper thin the band’s hooks have become. After all, if the transition between cymbal shattering intensity and the pop charts were easy, every metal band worth their salt would shifting as many units as Linkin Park.
At their best, Mastodon are capable of sitting alongside the great metal bands of the early-90s. “Tread Lightly” blends the portentous grandeur of its vocals with an instrumental onslaught that grows more and more monumental with each passing minute. The bellowing refrain “Open Your Eyes, Take A Deep Breath And Return To Life” is earnest enough to mirror one of Biffy Clyro’s heartfelt crescendos and yet the fearsome whole should be imperious enough to earn a nod of approval from even the most studious 70s prog rocker.
Sadly, there is a noticeable dip in the quality of the hooks and the immediacy of the riffs in the album’s second half. “Aunt Lisa” and “Ember City” rave and implore respectively, offering glimmers of the record’s early momentum, but there’s nothing as instantly essential as the Thin Lizzy-ish “High Road” to be uncovered as the album progresses.
The struggle to reconcile where their going, with what they must leave behind, appears to be haunting Mastodon. Folding the dark and complex tones of old into a slicker more potent product is proving a struggle and the not-quite-there album closer “Diamond In The Witch House” is testament to this ordeal. Unless they can iron out their lumpy contractions, Mastodon may have to embrace the mantra “less is more”.
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