Saturday, 28 June 2014

Album Review; Mastodon - Once More 'Round The Sun

Track Listing:

1. Tread Lightly
2. The Motherload
3. High Road
4. Once More 'Round The Sun
5. Chimes At Midnight
6. Asleep In The Deep
7. Feast Your Eyes
8. Aunt Lisa
9. Ember City
10. Haloween
11. Diamond In The Witch House

Mastodon have been a strange band for me to consider for the last while. Obvious things out of the way; 'Leviathan' was a great album, 'Blood Mountain' was solid as well, and both of them gained the band an entire fanbase worldwide. Then came 'Crack The Skye'; without a doubt the best thing Mastodon had done! It's bizarre concept combined with equally as bizarre music that twisted and undulated it's way through all kinds of progressive genius made for a heady tonic that is highly unlikely to be removed from my list of best albums ever made. From there, I was hoping for more aural wizardry from the band. I was massively disappointed when 'The Hunter' came out. The follow up to one of the finest albums of recent years came in the form of a simplistic Rock album that was full of brain-dead riffs, cringe-worthy choruses and irritating melodies. Sure, it gained worldwide appeal, and that's fine if everyone else loved it. For me, however; it was underwhelming, to say the least.

The idea of another Mastodon album since then has brought apprehension and dread to my mind. Questions such as; Are they going to produce 'The Hunter Pt. II'? Are they going to dumb things down even further? Or could my own hopes be granted with a return to form worthy of the musicianship that this band is more than capable of?

'Once More 'Round The Sun' is an odd beast, it turns out. It's clear from the off that the juvenile simplicity of 'The Hunter', I'm glad to say, is all but gone on this album. It's also not an album free of an overall concept. What's on the menu is instead some melodic Progressive Metal that is in some places reminiscent of 'Crack The Skye' without it feeing like the band is repeating themselves. 'Tread Lightly' sets the tone well, but it's on 'The Motherload' that the direction of this album is clarified. The melodicism in the writing and execution of these songs is very clearly on show. There's a good punch to be delivered on those first few songs for those who have the foresight to maybe dig a little deeper into the album.

'High Road' was the first single released from this album, and it's safe to say that it is the most catchy song on the album. That's not to say it's the best song here; it isn't! It's a to-the-point Hard Rock stomper. The Progressive feel is far less evident on this tune than on the rest of the album, and the vocal harmonies at the chorus may sit funny on some people's ears, but it's a grower. One issue that does leap to mind is just how out of place it seems to be among the album as a whole; is it possible that Mastodon have taken to writing singles, in the more cynical understanding of the practice? Was 'High Road' written to appease the more pedestrian fans that they gained with 'The Hunter'?

The title track goes straight into Space Rock territory, with the intricate flourishes on the guitar lines and Brann Dailor's technical drumming that definitely show the band's affinity for bands like Rush and Yes. It doesn't grab you by the throat, and the chorus is definitely a bit flat. 'Chimes At Midnight' and it's follow-up are the closest that the album gets to the greatness of 'Crack The Skye' and is a standout track, considering all the subtle twists and turns present. It also conveys a much darker song writing style than the band used on 'The Hunter'. 'Asleep In The Deep' sways and spins with spiralling, kaleidoscopic guitar lines that are well matched up with rather low-key vocal lines and a general weirdness that has a relaxed vibe coiled through it.

'Feast Your Eyes' sees the album lose track a bit. The opening guitar lines just sound strange and ugly, not in an artistic way, it hits rather like a splinter to the ear canal that does little more than irritate. From there on out the riffs are clumsy and the structure comes across like amateurish fumblings rather than a smoothly crafted piece of music. The abrupt ending is welcome. 'Aunt Lisa' continues the weirdness, with bizarre psychedelic noises sounding like slowed down samples of farts. Such additions are what can kill an otherwise okay song, and perhaps a band such as this could do with learning that there is such a thing as too much. Those noises all but smother a perfectly strong riff! The riff at the end is one of the best on the album, and even a rather tongue-in-cheek female group chant can't stifle that.

'Ember City' is one of the more instantly accessible songs on the album, but it does show that the song writing style on here is all rather samey, and at times there is a little too much going on to digest. As if Mastodon simply cannot sit still long enough to create a body of work that is more concise. Sure, some of the riffs on the songs are pretty damn good, but there's always a long labyrinth of rather boring music that connects them. This is true of most of the songs on the album; the tone and structures all become rather too familiar. Only the most ardent stoner or tripper could put up with so much of this. 'Halloween' is guilty of these faults as well as the praises that have been mentioned, and as such only further displays my point. To be fair though, there's some great guitar leads, not something that has been utilized very much on this record.

'Diamond In The Witch House' closes this album. I rather expected a song that lasts for nearly eight minutes to be a showcase of a few different ideas and a bit more imagination than the band have shown on the majority of this record, instead it's much the same. Herein lies the biggest issue and a subsequent question about 'Once More 'Round The Sun'; Mastodon are a band that have not repeated themselves very much since their inception as a band, and they've amassed great popularity through this, but where this individual's favourite Mastodon record has wowed him immediately, my least favourite has repelled me just as quickly. It's strange to now be faced with a Mastodon album that leaves me with a real question mark over my head. In short, the question is; what direction are Mastodon moving in, musically? If there's an answer to this question, it is not displayed very clearly at all on 'Once More 'Round The Sun'.

In summary, this is far better than 'The Hunter', no question about that. However, it does not have that explosive might that Mastodon have already proven themselves to be more than capable of. In that respect - it is also far from the band's best release. The addition of such an obvious single makes this album all the more worrying. This is a band that has every right to be fearless as far as song writing goes, and that fact makes me wonder if they are running out of ideas, or simply trying to juggle too many ideas at one time. Listen to this album and judge for yourself, of course, but I expect just as many to be confused as to be captivated.