The mastodon, behemoths of the order Proboscidea (elephant), sporting tusks that would dwarf a fully grown man, went extinct because of the growing threat of…humans. That’s right, we killed the mastodon, golem of the prehistoric world, with our frail human hands, and we did it because they were unable to adapt to the new threat that humanity posed. (Note to my biologist editor and readers: I know that extinction patterns are rarely that simple, but come on, I’m trying to draw a metaphor here.) But while the mastodon died out because they couldn’t adapt to a world defined by human interaction, Mastodon (the band) has remained critically relevant largely due to their adaptability.
The internet age has made it possible for every idiot with an IP address to spout off about music. The dawn of internet music criticism not only meant everyone gained a voice, but also that every album’s or single’s release would be scrutinized, deconstructed, and picked at by the online community of critics until only the bones remained. I personally think that metal, maybe more than any other genre, has suffered the greatest loss from such careful scrutiny.
Metal was never the most cerebral genre to begin with. It has always been based on the expurgation of emotions stored within our reptilian brain. It’s about hate, fear, and adrenaline-fueled passion. It is music heavy enough to express the darkest emotions that words alone fail to convey, so why would it fare well under the often-insipid scrutiny of music journalism? Even metal’s spiritual forefathers, the critically acclaimed Led Zeppelin, were initially dismissed by Rolling Stone as derivative blues-rock drivel. Hunted with pitchforks by the mainstream music press, metal turned in on itself, away from such mainstream outlets, and slowly entombed itself in an endless web of repetitive I-can-play-faster-than-you subgenres, little innovation that could be qualified as actual metal (see Deafheaven’s brilliant, but barely metal Sunbather), and stanch “fuck the critics” attitudes.
So how has Mastodon remained critically relevant, even lauded, over the course of five albums and 15 years? Because Mastodon is adaptive to the extreme. Critics hate metal bands because metal bands often appear uninterested in songwriting. Mastodon can thrash with the best of them, but even their heaviest moments are hummable and carefully executed. Metal albums frequently lack the cerebral, introspective, conceptual framework that makes critics need a fresh set of underwear. Mastodon’s first four albums are not only linked through their use of the classical Greek elements (fire, water, earth, and ether), but nuanced and emotionally potent concepts like Moby Dick, personal mysticism, and the fall of Rasputin, all of which were used to excise painful personal demons and strike at fundamental truths. Metal is derided as endlessly repetitive, but Mastodon deconstructs a new sound on each new album, all the while never losing sight of their unique gifts. If you didn’t like the vicious assault of Remission, there was the slow-burn brutality of Leviathan. If you didn’t care for the meat-and-potatoes songwriting of Blood Mountain, there was the proggy exploration of Crack the Skye. Even if you didn’t like metal at all, there’s still The Hunter, Mastodon’s brilliant genre exploration which touches on nearly everything in the history of hard rock, from Syd Barrett to Pink Floyd to Thin Lizzy-indebted punk.
Mastodon’s adaptability and careful eye for sprawling but direct songwriting means that, in anticipation of their sixth album, Once More ‘Round the Sun, the critical question is not “will it be great?” but “what kind of great will it be?” The answer, strangely enough, is that for the first time these metal de-constructionists have made an album that doesn’t burn down a subgenre and rebuild something from its ashes. Instead, Once More ‘Round the Sun is a deconstruction of the sound of Mastodon itself. Gone are the grand conceptual frameworks that carried all their other albums (even The Hunter was technically tied to the Chinese element of wood). Gone are the extended tracks and genre experiments (every track here is pure metal and only one stretches beyond seven minutes). Even the name of the album is an expression of the pedestrian. We aren’t climbing Blood Mountain and we aren’t harpooning the White Whale. We’re just living through another year, and in place of those lofty touchstones stand 11 songs of essential, vital, and endlessly catchy pop-metal.
One need go no further than earworm opener, “Tread Lightly,” to see what I mean. There’s nothing about this song that isn’t standard “verse, chorus, repeat” structure, yet each time I listen to it I can’t help but be amazed. Its central riff is mathematical but wholly accessible. It balances low-end Ozzy vocals on the verses with a skyscraping, harmony-laden chorus that is even better in contrast to the whip turn it takes from the verse. Nothing about this song feels bloated or unnecessary. Everything about every riff and every machine-gun snare fill feels wholly essential and results in so much more than the sum of its parts. Then, as if the members of Mastodon weren’t satisfied with one crack at the ideal album opener, the next three songs (“The Motherload,” “High Road” and the title track “Once More ‘Round The Sun”) all follow the same basic songwriting formula, each song dropping in just enough sonic variance to retain a sense of riveting originality.
Even when the album breaks away from the pop-metal formula established by the first four tracks, adding in the characteristic time signature shifting that Mastodon has become known for, it doles it out only to heighten the impact of the songs themselves. An example of this would be the expansive doom-and-gloom introduction that kicks off “Chimes at Midnight,” and the subsequent thrash riff that feels all the more potent because of it. The alternate universe Smiths-esque metal of “Asleep in the Deep,” with its beautiful arpeggios and multi-layered chorus, not only complements the contained expanse of “Chimes at Midnight,” but balances well against the punk-infused thrash of the following set (“Feast Your Eyes,” “Aunt Lisa,” “Ember City,” and “Halloween”). Finally, by the time the Scott Kelly feature “Diamonds in the Witch House” arrives, its expansive songwriting is earned by the concision of the previous tracks. Ultimately, “Diamonds” feels like the necessary release of the controlled emotion that has come before it – the listener is left wanting more as Kelly reaches his final throat-shredding notes and the album fades into a sea of harmonics.
What really makes Once More ‘Round The Sun the ideal distillation of Mastodon’s sound is not just its concise songwriting and perfect pop-metal choruses, such as those you’d find on tracks like “Ember City” (seriously, has the line “What do I say to you?” ever meant more than when drummer-singer Brann Dailor belts it out here, over concussive blasts of massive guitar chords and frantic cymbals?). The real potency of this album is in the fact that you can find bits of nearly every iteration of Mastodon peppered throughout the work. The massive riff of lead single “High Road” feels like an ideal update on the “Blood and Thunder” riff that introduced most of the metal world to the band. Those who loved The Hunter’s eccentricity will be tickled by the demented cheerleader’s chant that closes out “Aunt Lisa.” Fans of Crack the Skye will be more than sated by the naked emotional release of “Diamonds in the Witch House” and those frequent, longing Dailor choruses. Blood Mountain devotees are in for a treat with the drama and classic rock aspirations of “The Motherload.” True, the band no longer screams their hearts out like they did on Remission, but both guitarist-singer Brent Hinds’ banshee screech and bassist-singer Troy Sanders’ guttural roar are deployed carefully and methodically throughout the album. Mastodon, ever the musical polyglots, sacrilegiously cannibalize their own sounds on Once More ‘Round The Sun and, ultimately, the album feels like a deconstruction of just about everything there is to love about this band.
Sure, I could nitpick and say that the album’s cohesive song craft is almost too cohesive, leaving it feeling a little flat at times. It’s true; the experimental signposts are few and far between and most of the songs ride similar mid-tempo minor-key grooves. Still, the more you listen to the album, the more it reveals each song’s carefully constructed eccentricities, and ultimately it’s better for its dearth of sonic divergence. In the past, Mastodon’s grand concepts allowed them to blast off into space and take the listener on an interstellar journey, but like every conceptual work, there were always weak moments, stylistic choices that felt forced upon the songs by ambition. Here we’re spared the bloat that has always been a feature of even the best Mastodon albums, and because this version of Mastodon is still engaging without the weirder departures, you’ll barely miss the usual album-defining concepts. Ultimately, six albums in, Mastodon is looking leaner, meaner, and ready to take over the world, just like the inter-dimensional nightmare that fills the album’s cover. I think it’ll be a long time before we see Mastodon go extinct, their bones buried in the silicate for our children to discover.