In June this year, Mastodon released their sixth studio album, Once More ‘Round The Sun. The release kind of caught me off guard, since it seems like just yesterday that their previous album, The Hunter, was released (strange, considering it was actually released in 2011). I was going to try and review this album based on it’s own merits, but because the band have changed their sound dramatically over the years, it’s hard to talk about a new release without comparing it to their back catalogue.
If someone is talking about a new album from a rock or metal band, using terms like “mellow” or “accessible” can be seen as derogatory, and if there is any mention of acoustic guitars, it’s easy to assume that the band might be disappearing up their own arse (even though Mastodon have demonstrated some great acoustic chops as far back as Leviathan). Fortunately, while this album is certainly continuing in the same vain as The Hunter (which was criticized for sounding too mainstream), the band sound more self assured, and they manage to mix some well developed melodies with wide open soundscapes, whilst still being able to cut loose with some crushing riffs when they need to.
The most notable aspect, right from the beginning, is that the band have improved their vocal performances dramatically, and they seem to be able to take advantage of each vocalists unique qualities. The lead vocals are taken by bassist, Troy Sanders (whose range goes from a low croon, to a wild and crazed roar), and guitarist, Brent Hinds (who still has an…odd quality to his voice, but his phrasing and tone have become ten times clearer than previous efforts), while drummer, Brann Dailor, takes the mic from time to time as well, whose smoother, softer vocals are always welcome.
The opening track, ‘Tread Lightly’ gets off to a promising start, but seems quite predictable, and kind of sounds like it could be a b-side or extra track from a previous album, which isn’t terrible, just a little bit disappointing. The song, however, does redeem itself towards the end, with some lovely vocal melodies in the second chorus, followed by a chugging, taut middle eight, and some all round great guitar work up until the end. A decent opener, but not without its faults.
From a compositional standpoint, i have a similar problem with ‘Chimes at midnight”, which begins with the lead guitar wailing over a wonderfully dreary chord sequence, and i imagine it is what things would sound like if the world was ending. The song then switches, fairly abruptly, to a galloping, intense riff, and this mood is kept up until just before the end. The problem i have here is that the first section is incredibly promising, and just as i think it could go somewhere really interesting, it just kind of gets cut off, and while it comes back for the outro, i just wish it was a little longer. I enjoy both parts of this song in isolation, but i just think that the transition is a little too jarring to work for me.
The second half of the album seems to be stronger than the first half; ‘Asleep In The Deep’ is definitely the tamest track on the album, but the guitar work is fantastic, and there are some nice ethereal, psychedelic moments about half way through the song. The following songs, ‘Feast Your Eyes’, and ‘Aunt Lisa’, could almost be companion pieces, with the former being a short, but pummeling piece, with all of the tropes and motifs that made older Mastodon songs great (bombardments of drum fills, mixed with some fiddly riffs and interesting time signatures). ‘Aunt Lisa’ keeps up the relentless pace of the previous song, but opens up to a nice groove about a quarter of a way though, breaking up things up nicely with some swelling synths and sporadic bass riffs. While this is probably my favourite song of the album, the outro (“Hey! Ho! Let’s fucking go!/Hey! Ho! Let’s get up and rock and roll!”) Is mind-bogglingly cringe worthy, and is definitely one of the biggest missteps of the album, for me at least.
If you are new to Mastodon, and you are coming expecting a sludge/prog metal album, then you would be better off starting with Leviathan, or Remission, similarly, if you are a purist to their older stuff, then this album probably won’t be for you. If you are ok with the fact that the band have become more accessible, however, then this is worth checking out, as it is quite fair to say that the record is a return to form for the band.