Review Summary: If the evolution found on this record is the destiny of Mastodon, then metal's collective future is bright indeed.
The opening notes of a record sometimes form the decisive clincher of whether a record may be good or bad. Sometimes, when you have an opening song that totally kicks ass, you get straight into record, like you're in a rollercoaster getting ready for that super exciting loop-de-loop. On the other hand, that stuff could also really turn you off if it happens to be something that is so ear-splitting you are left running or reaching for the remote (depending on your disposition towards critical situations).
Mastodon's opening, serpentine, slithering riff, complete with Brann's cascading drum patterns, is a very good representation of what this album sounds like. On this record, you will find many of these moments. Hinds and Kelliher seem to have diverted a bit from the stomp of their earlier records (there is no instantly recognisable riff here like the one that opened Leviathan on the amazing Blood and Thunder), but they have replaced it with sneaky melodies, like snakes twisting along their stoner-psych-metal freakout that constitutes the rest of the album. It seems like Mastodon has finally found their niche: they're not just playing the great brute apes (or whales, or cyclops, or fire ants), but they seem to have finally found their groove in interweaving that metal punch with music that makes the album relatable to an external demographic.
It's amazing that they keep it together so well though, as some of the songs here are spiraling helixes of music. Two songs clock in over ten minutes; they feature long moody passages; there is noodling of grand proportions to be found; and through it all, everything seems to flow perfectly, not just thanks to good songwriting, but also to Brann Dailor's terrific drumming, whose signature fills and impeccable timing keep the gigantic melting pot of music Mastodon have concocted from boiling over. His fills are powerful and tasteful, and he seems superbly in his element here. Brann's performance is even heightened by the introduction of him singing: the first few lines of "Oblivion" display the talents of this newfound vocalist in Mastodon's midst.
Vocals are pretty much one of the few drawbacks Mastodon still has. Hinds and Sanders are capable yowlers, but this record is heavier on the clean vocals; and their drawling combo of bear-trap roars and clean monotony seems to have shifted unfavourably towards the lesser end of their skills. Whereas Leviathan or Blood Mountain had that uncanny characteristic where the vocals sounded awkward, but fit well over the pounding and thrashing music, the transition of Mastodon from full-out blasters to a more soft-spoken band has also seen them highlight the vocal limitations of any of the band members, which seem to be unable to deliver vocals that are more than "fitting". Even when luminary Scott Kelly of the mighty Neurosis drops by for a cameo in Crack the Skye's title track, his moment of fame seems to overshadow any of the vocals provided by the rest of the band. It's almost like the grandiose nature of the music demands a grandiose over-the-top vocalist; these men's utterings almost leave you hunkering for something less mundane. It's not that they're bad; just that they seem tame in comparison to what's swirling about them. Grand music almost demands more.
It doesn't help that what they're singing is a hackneyed concept at worst and an amusing laugh at best. The message is a hotchpotch of various mythological, weird, and strange things: something about a guy being paraplegic, doing a cosmic astral travel jump back in time, ***ing around with the body of Rasputin, and then joining some weird sect or whatever and killing stuff. Mastodon have always been a band of extremes this way (Leviathan was about Moby Dick, and Blood Mountain was about this guy questing to the top of a mountain), and they are not yet DragonForce, but it almost seems so kitschy to tack it onto this. However, Mastodon seem to not take the lyrics that seriously, and neither should a fan, because apart from Crack The Skye (which is a metaphor for the suicide of Brann's sister), Mastodon have realised that they are not a serious band that way, and are completely capable of understanding what is there to be serious about. Another positive is that they realise that the grand scope of the music demanded a grand concept; sure, it's not the most interesting thing ever witnessed, but when you're inspired, you come up with stuff like this, I guess.
This album isn't for the purist Mastodon fans who hated everything after the stodgy slap in the face that constituted their first two records. Mastodon are not that band anymore, that generic metal band where everything is about chugging out those heavy riffs (though the hydra-headed multitudes of power and crunch still appear frequently). Instead, they've done the thing every self-respecting band should do, and slowly evolved towards a more unique and definitive sound, even if they are now drawing in equal measures from bands such as Pink Floyd and Genesis as they are from The Melvins and Neurosis, or even Slayer. And though their road to the top is still fraught with a few small hitches, and succumbs to a few cliches, musically they have found a niche where they can reside and explore; they have found a good stable starting point for future endeavours. They've become the art-metallers they did not set out to be; but that is a good thing, in Mastodon's case, as their newfound influences seem to suit the band like a glove. If this evolution is the destiny of Mastodon, metal's collective future is bright indeed.