If I wanted to be a dick, I could have simply given The Hunter a pass-fail grade on each song, based it on lasting enjoyability, calculated the mean, and given Mastodon somewhere around a 38% on what is its fifth and arguably most disappointing full-length to date. Although I stand by the above claim, both Mastodon and The Hunter deserve to be given more credit post-Crack The Skye taking us all by storm in 2009. It’s always a bit easier to pinpoint a specific “transition” album in any band’s discography after that band has released a number of albums. In retrospect, songs that may have once seemed like blemishes turn out to be the origins of brilliant and innovative ideas for future recordings. More likely than not, we are observing a case of that here. Skeptics were quick to assume that The Hunter may have only consisted of quickly thrown-together Crack The Skye b-sides dedicated to getting Mastodon more radio plays and commercial popularity. (I include myself in this category of misanthropes.) After listening more intently, I can almost guarantee that this is not the case; but this indestructible four-piece is certainly going to have to spend some time back at the ol’ drawing board if they want this album to become as acceptable as Blood Mountain did as soon as Crack The Skye was released.
Remission and Crack The Skye serve as two massively solid bookends for the first decade of the band’s career. Both of those albums represent the greatest works of a band that helped shape a giant portion of the last ten years in metal. The two albums also play off each other quite nicely: Where one is punishingly heavy, the other is a psychedelic warp zone exploring the deeper side of modern heavy metal. Where Remission‘s short, powerful songs are far from sounding boringly simplistic, the epics on Crack The Skye come off as anything but pretentious or self-indulgent. The reason why it’s important to bring up Mastodon‘s first and last efforts of the previous decade (other than for convincing you that they are easily the band’s two finest albums) is because The Hunter seems to be almost an exact combination of the two. Those familiar with all of the band’s works will immediately know why that sounds so bizarre. Truth be told, The Hunter is a complete chore to listen to front to back, and not in the same way most would expect. This mother is so full of hooks, it wouldn’t run out of them even if it were a pocketless, one-man fishing operation sailing from Portugal to South America on an inflatable rubber dinghy. The main problem isn’t that Hinds’ clean vocals ring constantly throughout the entire album, but that the majority of the actual choruses are too simplistic, too repetitive, and very fucking annoying… even to the extent that Clear Channel producers had hard-ons before they even heard the damn thing.
The reason why shorter tracks worked so well on Remission and Leviathan was because they were both super heavy and groovy as hell. “Curl of the Burl,” “Blasteroid,” “Octopus Has No Friends,” “All The Heavy Lifting,” and “Thickening” are neither, and will get old very fast. And those aren’t the only songs on the album that suck. “The Hunter” would get eaten alive by “The Czar” any day of the week (as it feels like a failed attempt to recreate such a magnificent song), and “Creature Lives” contains over a minute of laughter, followed by vocals that seem like a mix between pop punk and white men singing in a church choir. The point is: If Mastodon is trying to condense the unforgettable trips that are “The Czar” and “The Last Baron” down into four minutes, the band is going to need more than a miracle. Crack The Skye was a true journey into what might be the absolute pinnacle of modern stoner rock. It contained a mere seven songs, yet was almost a full hour in length. The Hunter is only a few minutes longer and contains thirteen tracks, seven of which have already received failing grades. In theory, there isn’t anything wrong with music that is easily accessible… that is until it gets caught in your head and you wake up in the middle of the night wanting to erase the memory of “Curl of the Burl” from your brain entirely. (We call this “Ohrwurm” in German.) Disagree? Tell me if you’re still listening to the same shitty songs a year from now and I’ll reconsider my statements. Thankfully, there are some pretty kickass songs on this record as well, so let’s get to those… I promise it’s positivity and optimism from here on out.
Although “Black Tongue” is an exciting start for the album, it’s songs like “Stargasm” that really leave much to be discovered after the initial couple of listens. Thankfully, the refrain doesn’t dull immediately the way it does with so many of the album’s other songs. The same goes with “Dry Bone Valley,” another track which could have replaced “Oblivion” or “Divinations” on Crack The Skye. The real surprise, however, comes with the The Hunter‘s closing tracks. Together, the three of them contain every aspect that helped make Mastodon a god among ants in the first place, whether it be the sheer power of “Spectrelight,” the unique technicalities and memorable vocals of “Bedazzled Fingernails,” or the solemn beauty of “The Sparrow.” All are reasons to believe that Mastodon hasn’t forgotten its roots and is merely delving into a realm of self-exploration, as opposed to releasing the precursor to the first Load of the 21st century. (Take note that The Hunter may be as important to the coming decade as The Black Album was for the 90s.) Hopeful fans should still be cautious, as Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Maroon 5, 50 Cent[ouch]) is solely credited for the production of this album.
In the past decade, the members of Mastodon set the standard in many different aspects of metal by pushing their creative boundaries to the fullest. Each of the first four full-lengths is a favorite album to a varying crowd of opinionated die-hards. Given the strength of the albums of the Naughties, The Hunter is nowhere near bad enough to completely derail the band’s fan base, but it would probably be best if Mastodon remembers the fans who have supported them for the past 10+ years by not botching the set list of the next tour without prior warning. (I’m looking at you, Åkerfeldt.)
Finally, this album comes equipped with some fantastic visual work including the making of the wooden sculpture featured on the front cover and a music video that goes with each song. Although perks like this, working hand-in-hand with showy musicianship, might be enough to keep the munchkins entertained, music lovers are going to require a bit more quality songwriting to walk away from this album with a long-lasting, positive impression. Music alone should be powerful enough to take any listener for a ride, anything else should be strictly supplemental.
Rae Amitay’s take:
Mastodon can be described as heavy, disorienting, progressive, and deeply rhythmic. With The Hunter, one word that has eluded their portrayal is now at the forefront of their sound: catchy. This album has unbelievable accessibility and groove, and while old-school fans might be up in arms about it, Mastodon will have no trouble recruiting hordes of brand new fans. Before even listening to the album, it’s clear that things have changed. The album art, band logo, and track lengths all point to a departure from the band’s previous choices. But never fear, this is not a Heritage situation. Even though Mastodon is taking a sizable creative risk, it’s not nearly as polarizing as Opeth’s 70’s throwback extravaganza.
The music has been stripped down to something far more bare bones and rock oriented, with infectious choruses and relatively simple structures. It will remind listeners of a twisted doom cousin of Foo Fighters at times, and this is definitely a good thing. Mastodon performed Crack The Skye in its entirety more times than necessary, which left many fans hating each and every proggy second of it. With The Hunter, the songwriting is still heavy as ever, but far more concise than Mastodon’s last album. The album doesn’t take itself too seriously, especially lyrically, and as a result listeners will find themselves smiling as they headbang along to the album’s crushing riffs. Although The Hunter is thoroughly enjoyable, there are a couple of things that kept it from deserving a perfect “10”.
One qualm many will have with this album is its production. Songs like “Dry Bone Valley” and “Octopus Has No Friends” were completely void of grit, and a rougher, less “perfect” mix would have given the songs a bit more edge. Another issue is more a matter of taste. Mastodon’s narrative quality has always been admirable, and each of their previous albums wove an intricate story, with tracks effortlessly interlaced. The Hunter is not a conceptual work. There’s a bit of a space theme, sure, with tracks like “Blasteroid” and “Stargasm,” but it’s nothing close to a tale like Leviathan. While this album is undoubtedly music to blast through your headphones, the crushing walls of sound present on albums like Blood Mountain have been left in the past.
“Black Tongue” is the first track, and marks the first steps down a very different path for the band. Those who have a firm investment in Mastodon’s signature progressive sound will not be pleased, but if they’re able to step away and appreciate the album for what it is, and not what the band’s name has come to represent, they will likely find themselves engrossed by some aspect of The Hunter. “Curl of the Burl” is reminiscent of a sludgier Queens of the Stone Age coupled with Mastodon’s own unique spin. The bizarrely titled “Bedazzled Fingernails” is one of the most interesting tracks on the album, and the closest thing to Mastodon’s previous sonic sensibilities.
Mastodon may be able to connect with dismayed fans in a live situation better than on the recordings, which are clean and precise almost to a fault. The art and videos the band has produced are killer and will lend themselves to a captivating show. Is this enough to hold the interest of those listening to the album sans supplemental material? That’ll have to be determined on a case-by-case basis.
All complaining aside, The Hunter is one of the top albums of the year. Marketable hard rock with progressive influences doesn’t always have to leave fans feeling pissed off. Yes, this has “radio darling” written all over it, but so what? I’d rather hear this played on constant rotation than what’s been polluting the airwaves as of late. A couple of the tracks fail to resonate since they are meant to function independently as opposed to contributing to a bigger picture, but that’s splitting hairs given the overall quality of the record. Closing with “The Sparrow”, a melancholic and atmospheric piece replete with soothing vocals and driving percussion, The Hunter cements itself as an admirable addition to Mastodon’s discography.