If there’s one thing to say about the men behind Mastodon, it’s this – they’ve always gone out of their way to valiantly charge into the realms of imagination that the sane would flee from in tears. But with The Hunter, the follow-up to the bewilderingly successful Crack the Skye, this fearless beast is showing hints of becoming domesticated.
Five albums in, and there’s a noticeable element of change. Gone is the intricate album artwork of Paul Romano, replaced with the confounding sculpture work of AJ Fosik; Brendan O’Brien – who managed to stop the band scurrying up their own arses during the recording of the titanic Crack the Skye – has been replaced with the pop/hip hop orientated producer Mike Elizondo. How’s this for a bit of controversy – past clients include Eminem, Dr Dre and, gulp, Maroon 5.
In fairness, Elizondo does a good job of capturing the raucous vibes of the rock genre’s most monolithic of men. ‘Curl of the Burl’ sees Mastodon at their most accessible; a brief sojourn with a devilishly catchy chorus that drills itself into the mind like a musical woodpecker, if such a thing was to exist. His job has clearly been to take this unapproachable bunch of beardy misfits and their divisive sound, douse them in water and tone the prehistoric rumblings down to a more acceptable level.
That’s where The Hunter falters. For all its drive and frantic pace, staples of the Mastodon juggernaut, there is a constant feeling that the band has lost some of the wildly adventurous silliness that made them so easy to fall in love with, regardless of what you thought of Brent Hinds’ chicken-squawk screams.
The title track, burrowed in between the raucous ‘All the Heavy Lifiting’ and rampaging ‘Dry Bone Valley’, is one such disappointment. A plodding rhythm is salvaged with the Masto-trope of a wailing guitar halfway through, but little salvages the awkward lyrics [All the love I make/Is equal to the love I take] and their strained delivery. The ‘Don of the past had some outrageous lyrical themes to fall back on when the music dwindled, but where Leviathan‘s opening track, ‘Blood and Thunder’ inspired a whole internet meme, there’s little on The Hunter that is likely to inspire the same kind of devotion.
It’s that sense of two-steps-forward, one-step-back that makes The Hunter a bit of a disappointment. Bands will always need to adapt to survive, and often that leads to controversy among those who felt connected with the band of old. But The Hunter feels like more than that – like an essential element of what made Mastodon the band it was has been scaled back. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest the band has ‘sold out’ – an idea no more idiotic than the concept behind Jurassic Park – but the insane magic the Mastodon of old produced is greatly subdued.
Perhaps it’s to Mastodon’s credit that it is their impressive back catalogue that exacerbates the feeling of disappointment in The Hunter. When Crack the Skye came out it befuddled critics and fans alike. Listening to it, you felt on the edge of sanity itself and it was that sensation that drew the listener back, time and time again. But there’s little of that on The Hunter. It is, unfortunately, just a collection of songs. Not bad songs, but not utterly bewildering, blow-your-pants-off, we’re-going-down-that-rabbit-hole-at-3,000mph songs, either. We’ll put this one down as the lads from Mastodon taking a well-deserved break from the breakneck insanity of past material.