By Andrew Burton
When Metallica recorded their fifth album in 1991, they found themselves at a crossroads. With four thrash classics under their belt and inches away from commercial acceptance, they could have continued producing critically acclaimed material or they could finally break into the mainstream. When The Black Album was released, it was obvious which route they took. It was a stylistic departure into a more radio-friendly hard rock sound, and it proved to be the ultimate double-edged sword. It sold millions, established Metallica as the biggest metal band in the world and the album’s hit single Enter Sandman has become engrained in the subconscious of every rock fan. On the flipside, it angered many of the band’s devoted fans that had been following them since their roots in the Bay Area thrash scene, who bombarded the band with accusations of selling out. It was apparent that Metallica were never going to create another Master of Puppets. Instead they were headed straight into the world of GQ haircuts, Oasis balladry, psychotherapy, and a disastrous but oddly hilarious experiment with nu-metal.
Twenty-years later, Mastodon is at the exact same crossroads. The careers of both bands have been eerily similar. Each formed in the two worst eras of metal, Metallica in the hair metal scene and Mastodon in the pseudo-aggressive, but equally awful nu-metal scene. Their debut albums, Kill ‘Em All and Remission repesctively, showcased each band in their rawest form, while their next few albums had the bands delve into more progressive sounds (especially Mastodon). Both bands have built their fan base on constant touring and excellent albums, and are both the biggest metal bands of their respective generations. For their fifth album, Metallica hired Bob Rock to streamline their sound into a pop-metal machine. For The Hunter, Mastodon have picked Mike Elizondo, whose production resume includes (brace yourself) 50 Cent, P!nk and Maroon 5. It’s definitely a strange pick, and one can only wonder which direction the band is taking for this record.
Before The Hunter was officially released, Mastodon had already issued two very different promotional singles to the public. The first song, Black Tongue is much more in line with the band’s previous progressive work. The song’s constantly changing riffs range from the sludge metal sound Mastodon is best known for to faster and more abrasive thrash metal riffs. Combined with a frenetic drumbeat and Brent Hinds’ dark lyrics filled with images of death and loss, the song is a definite highlight. If only the next single, Curl of the Burl, was half as good. A clear attempt to get radio play, it sounds more like a Foo Fighters b-side than a Mastodon single. Mastodon have always been a band known to challenge their listeners with odd time signatures and unconventional forms, which have made their previous albums succeed. Curl of the Burl doesn’t challenge any conventions. It’s filled with boring riffs and has a chorus that sounds like it took the band five seconds to write. A very disappointing effort.
Mastodon’s first four albums have all been linked by a loose concept (some looser than others), but this one’s is definitely the most shocking… absolutely nothing. This album plays far more like a mix-tape. Psychedelic rock songs are placed before Queens of the Stone Age-esque radio rock songs, giving the album a far different feel from previous works. Whereas albums such as Crack the Skye felt much more like a story, filled with climaxes and progression, the songs on The Hunter feel like standalone ideas. This might appeal to a broader audience who don’t have the patience to listen to an album in its full form, but might also alienate hardcore fans, just adding to the fire of sellout accusations.
As mentioned earlier, Black Tongue is quite possibly the best song on the album. But the competition is close; the Thin Lizzy-esque dual lead guitar on Blasteroid is complimented with demented screaming from Hinds that hasn’t been seen since Remission. The title track is slow and haunting and Neurosis’ Scott Kelly shows up on Spectrelight to give a great vocal performance. The Sparrow, the final track on the album experiments with psychedelic vocals and lots of interesting effects throughout. To call this album a metal album is a misnomer. Most of the songs are more reminiscent of the classic rock sounds of Led Zeppelin than the sludgy progressive metal the band has developed (the exception being Creature Lives, a fantastic song that evokes the progressive sounds developed on Crack the Skye). When it works, it definitely works. But when it doesn’t, Mastodon falls into trouble.
The band has crafted many radio-friendly songs for this album, and not to come off as an elitist, but these moments are definitely the low points. Tracks such as Curl of the Burl and Octopus Has No Friends can be summarized in one word: boring. What made Mastodon the greatest metal band of this decade was their refusal to write music according to guidelines. Each previous record was musically evolving. With The Hunter, that evolution has stalled in favour of radio hits. The problem too is that many of them aren’t catchy. All the Heavy Lifting and Dry Bone Valley are instantly forgettable attempts at crafting heavy pop songs.
When Metallica took the mainstream route in 1991, everyone knew that the band was forever changed, while with Mastodon many of the elements that made previous albums successful are still present. However, the album is weighed down by mainstream radio attempts. On The Black Album, Metallica were able to craft memorable radio-rock anthems, but on The Hunter, few of these songs stand out. When the record works, it is dead on, but the bland hit-making attempts bring the album down.