Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mastodon's "The Hunter" and Dealing with Preferences

Maybe I was playing the “cool teacher” card when I mentioned Mastodon to my students early in 2009. They were the young, up and coming rhythm section in my improv group, and, judging from the sludgy drop-tuned shredding they indulged in when I wasn't shoving the blues down their throat, I suspected that name-dropping the band might be a “way in." They were surprised when I said I was into Mastodon, but were less impressed when I mentioned I was listening to Crack the Skye. For them, Mastodon's earlier work was identifiably metal, and Crack the Skye, a proggish concept album about spirits moving through the ether and such, threw them off with all its melodic singing and harmony.

Oblivion (Score) by Mastodon on Grooveshark

Recently, as rumors about their new release The Hunter began to ooze out, I found myself developing my own apprehensions. Reviews indicated that Mastodon’s long form songs and rock opera concepts had been abandoned in lieu of a more compact, singles-ready format. Suddenly, I felt like I was the one being sold out on.

On a recent visit to Houston, though, I became aware of my own current synth-based music preferences. Not that there is anything wrong with exploring these styles, but it did raise the concern that hard rock music has already said all that it’s going to say. The Rush fan in me found that idea a bit troubling. 

After reacquainting myself with some now-classic tracks from Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots at our host's house, though, I realized that a stripped-down, streamlined version of Crack the Skye would actually compare pretty favorably to my favorite 90s grunge.

Sex Type Thing by Stone Temple Pilots on Grooveshark

I decided that The Hunter might fill this void in my listening, so I took the plunge.

The Hunter is quite a bit more straightforward and digestible than Crack the Skye, and its structural differences present the increased pressure of convincing songwriting.  For Mastodon's epic sound, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  But let’s face it, if you “dropped the needle” on a random point on either album, the similarities between the The Hunter and its predecessor would be more obvious then the differences.

Mastodon’s massive sound springs from an amazing group dynamic that requires incredible cooperation and investment from all its members. The instinctive, spontaneous, “Lifeson-esque” approach of guitarist Brent Hinds, however, may make him one of the last entries on the list of great guitar heroes. Additionally, although members of the band share vocal duties, often drummer Brann Dailor sings lead from his kit, which automatically wins them plus ten awesome points.

Mastodon’s members are all excellent musicians in their style, and they ambitiously push their performance skills in the studio.  In a live setting, they also take care to render their music “as-is,” with a minimum of sequencers and back-up singers to patch things up. As a result, sometimes their live performances are a little sketchy in comparison to their recordings (especially in the vocal department). Regardless, I have a huge amount of respect for the way that they just go for it despite the potential glitches.

I can't help but admire Mastodon's intention to innovate, refine, and improve.  When you push a boundary, however, sometimes you cross it.  The Hunter actually is quite good and has quite a bit of depth of its own, but for the old-school fan of their earlier work, it may not sit well.  As a later fan of their more recent and expansive explorations, I admit to a preference for Crack the Skye, but The Hunter has still captured my attention.

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