For two albums now, Mastodon has been a regular band.
No matter how flimsily the ‘four elements’ scheme actually informed the band’s music, the Atlanta quartet’s run from the rampaging tumult of debut album Remission through the beautifully fluid progressive colossus of Crack the Skye seemed gifted with an almost mythical quality. Apart from the fact that each of those first four albums has a distinct identity, the continuity of Paul Romano’s artwork, coupled with the band’s tireless touring ethic and the metal (and, eventually, mainstream music) media’s increasingly breathless coverage, meant that Mastodon from 2002 to 2009 had to be approached as a nearly hermetic musical unity.
And then, with The Hunter, Mastodon became a regular band.
Though nothing seismic had shifted in the core of the band’s sound, the startling thing about The Hunter was that, well, it was just a bunch of songs the band had put together. That mythical edifice that had grown up around the band – an edifice, it should be said, that the band likely had little intention of creating – was suddenly gone, and while the album ultimately benefitted from its diversity and relative levity, many listeners and critics at the time struggled with how to approach it.
Now, with Once More ‘Round the Sun, Mastodon is still just a regular band. But while The Hunter demonstrated that it was okay for them to make albums that were simply good, Once More ‘Round the Sun falls short of its predecessor in every respect, and as such is the weakest Mastodon album by a wide margin. On its face, the new album is an attempt to take the more streamlined songwriting of The Hunter into an even more hugely hook-driven hard rock direction by plowing a proggier Torche/Foo Fighters/Queens of the Stone Age furrow. That’s fine in theory, but the end result is deathly bland and ultimately hollow, despite its superficial bombast.
The first augur comes early, at the very end of album opener “Tread Lightly.” The song churns amiably for several minutes, and its chorus teems with harmonies that invite even the most reticent grouches to belt along with it. Then, with a busy instrumental flourish, a glorious guitar solo punches through and… lasts for about five seconds before segueing the whole band into a ritardando to end the song. You could read that as a wink to reassure longtime fans that the band still knows those moves, but as the album unfolds, that wink turns to a mean-mugging tease, or the briefest concession to what the band perceives its detractors to want.
Nevertheless, the album begins strongly, with a cannily sequenced series of three songs that turn in individually pleasant, earworm choruses. The title track lets the guitars jangle as they pull some bluesy descending scale runs, but the melodies soon become grating, the tempo inflexible. By this point, the album’s failings have begun to wear: the guitars are thin, reedy, and unremarkable, and the instrumental songwriting prioritizes licks over riffs. This means that individual guitar lines are fleet and even virtuosic, but they feel like adornment rather than bedrock. On the few occasions when the band does switch into RIFF mode, they are egregiously self-plagiarizing, as with the verse riffing on “High Road” that sounds lifted directly from Leviathan.
But of course, that’s a choice by the band to pursue hooky choruses over hard-hitting riffs; as such, it’s fine to balk if one’s personal preference is for the band’s more metallic, riff-prioritizing materials, but it’s hardly fair to pillory the band for failing to play in a style they’ve intentionally shunned. Even taken on its own terms, however, Once More ‘Round the Sun struggles and ultimately fails to consolidate the strengths of the albums it most resembles. On balance, it is most similar to Blood Mountain and The Hunter. However, where Blood Mountain delighted in its tangibly over-the-top virtuosity (often at the expense of the songs) and The Hunter presented a band liberated by the opportunity to simply write an album full of songs, unweighted by tendentious concepts or stylistic unity, Once More ‘Round the Sun tames the band’s prodigious technical abilities in service of songs which can’t stand on their own sugar-coated legs.
Simply put, with Mastodon’s focus shifted so intently to delivering huge singalong choruses, when those choruses fail to land, the album languishes in a midground of banality. In fact, the whole four-song, mid-album sequence from “Chimes at Midnight” through “Aunt Lisa” would be almost uniformly faceless and indistinguishable if the conclusion of “Aunt Lisa” didn’t take such a dire turn for the execrable with its cheerleader-cadence chant of “Hey! Ho! Let’s fucking go! Hey! Ho! Let’s get up and rock & roll!” It feels like the sort of thing better suited to a post-ironic orgy of teenagers shouting in unison at a My Chemical Romance arena concert.
“Ember City” regains some of the album’s early momentum by balancing a legitimately infectious chorus with a satisfyingly psychedelic mid-song solo break, but then the ambitions of “Halloween” to serve as a nervy instrumental workout result only in an irritating conclusion with the panned guitar whipping from left to right. Neurosis’s Scott Kelly makes his expected appearance on the album’s turgid finale “Diamond in the Witch House,” and in fact provides lead vocal throughout the song, but his august presence does little to lift the song’s dull, directionless plod, which thwacks and dirges and groans but fails to generate the same sense of gravity that even the lesser songs from Mastodon’s early albums conjured so effortlessly.
On the whole, it’s probably a good thing that Mastodon has lost whatever dubious mythical status it may have unwittingly created with its first four albums, but this lackluster and altogether bland new album simply reiterates that inescapable truth: it’s hard out there for a regular band.