Overdue Album Reviews #1 – The Hunter

I make no real effort to stay on top of what’s current in music – I rarely listen to the radio, and I don’t know what bands are hot. This isn’t me parading my hipness by “not listening to overproduced corporate pop, man“; I’m equally ignorant of indie hipster bands and up-and-coming pop singers. And it’s not that I don’t like popular music either. I just find it takes too much damn effort to keep abreast of what’s happening in all of the scenes, far more effort than it’s worth expending to find music I really enjoy.

Unfortunately, this weak excuse doesn’t even apply when it comes to today’s blog post. Mastodon has been one of my favourite bands for years now, ever since 2004’s astonishing second album Leviathan. I’ve seen them two or three times, and one of them was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. So the fact that I’m using this post to review their most recent album, The Hunter, four whole months after its release, cannot be excused by my lack of hip. There are several other albums by equally cherished groups that have been out for months now. Expect further entries in the “Overdue Album Reviews” series – I doubt this is a problem I’ll ever get on top of, so as long as bands I love keep releasing albums, expect me to keep getting them months after everyone else has gotten over it already.

Onwards to the review!

The Hunter comes in a pretty box – though I miss the art style of the previous albums (all by the same artist), the front cover features a quite disturbing depiction of a mythical, multi-jawed beast. Something about it makes me think of Picasso’s Guernica. This album is also a departure from their previous albums because it doesn’t correspond to one of the classical elements.  Each of their earlier records is in some way inspired by or based upon fire, water, earth, or ether. They have yet to release an album that represents air, and it’s a little disappointing to the completionist in me that The Hunter doesn’t finish off the cycle; of course, this doesn’t take away from the quality of the music itself and Mastodon have to be allowed to write the album they want to write.

So what of the music? As I write this, I’ve listened through the album fully once, and I’m about halfway through my second listen. I’ve always found Mastodon’s albums require a bit of getting used to; it took me a while to warm to Leviathan, and their last release Crack the Skye was considered by many to be a difficult listen and a huge departure from their typical sound. Not so with The Hunter.  The opening track, “Black Tongue”, is if anything a more traditional heavy metal track than Mastodon tend to release. Solid riff, good vocals, and from the middle of the song onwards we have some classic heavy metal guitar harmonies. “Curl of the Burl” is a bit closer to  the familiar Mastodon sound. “Blasteroid”, Stargasm” and “Octopus Has No Friends” are interesting; some the riffs have a jolly, almost folksy, new flavour.

It’s around this point on my first listen that I look at the liner notes and see the album was produced bt Mike Elizondo, a name previously familiar to me as the session bassist on Dr. Dre’s album 2001, probably my favourite rap album. Mind somewhat blown!

From “All the Heavy Lifting” on, the album gets more proggy. Ethereal guitars soar over riffs and Brann Dailor’s typically virtuoso drumming. These songs have a little bit more of the 70’s influence, but don’t compromise on the heaviness. The mood changes surprisingly with the tenth track, “Creature Lives.” After a creepy intro of demonic laughter and swelling synths, this is practically a pop song; its melody and harmonies could nearly come right out of the charts, but with a prog twist. The following track “Spectrelight” resets the heaviness meter, and how! This track calls right back to the ferocity and energy of Leviathan; Iron Tusk in particular comes to mind. I am astonished that Spectrelight hasn’t been taken as a band name!

The final two tracks on the album continue in much the same fashion – Mastodon flirt with that typical prog-metal sound that so many bands have nowadays (to the point of it becoming a cliché, surely antithetical to progressive music, but that’s a topic for another blog post) but always do it tastefully and with enough individuality to pull it off.

In short, this is a very accessible album. Where Crack the Skye was impenetrable but ultimately rewarding, The Hunter is easy to listen to but complex enough to keep you interested. Anyone seeking genuinely interesting prog metal that doesn’t hold back when brutality is required should definitely try out this album. But of course, you probably bought it four months ago.

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