Review Summary: Mastodon's heaviness (and catchiness) now includes cheerleaders on Once More 'Round the Sun.
Introducing Mastodon is simple; they are an Atlanta metal band that has proven to be uncaring when it comes to the parameters that have surrounded metal music before or since their inception, making them true mavericks in a genre that can be suffocating in terms of creative expression when held in the wrong hands. Starting out by crafting violently heavy monstrosities like “Shadows That Move” and “March of the Fire Ants” that borrowed from extreme metal and hardcore in equal measure, Mastodon cranked their technical ability knob on the impressively complex yet still bludgeoning Blood Mountain, followed by dabbling in heady progressive rock with their final concept album Crack the Skye. Anyone thinking that Mastodon would go further down the winding prog rock path would be dead wrong as their next album was The Hunter, an album that was strangely accessible coming from the band that wrote Remission, and the album was simply a fun and oftentimes catchy affair that didn’t sacrifice the band’s artistic integrity, at least not very much. With The Hunter sounding nothing like Crack the Skye, and Crack the Skye sounding nothing like Blood Mountain, it was hard to pinpoint where the band would go next. Now we have Once More ‘Round the Sun, an album that successfully marries the catchy accessibility of their previous album with the psychedelic complexity of the one before it, and the resulting collection of songs make an entirely new sound for Mastodon once again.
Every single music fan on earth has probably said the following statement at least once in their life: “I hope (insert band here) goes back to their old sound on their new album.” This is a hilariously futile hope as it oftentimes doesn’t happen, and when it does, the resulting album could potentially sound flaccid and be only a glimmer of what the band was a decade or so ago. Mastodon may never be going back to full-on screaming rage and aggression, and that’s perfectly fine since a band like Mastodon shouldn’t have to please fans with such contrived efforts. Here, we have songs that definitely flirt with their previous level of heaviness (just look at the crushing “Chimes at Midnight”) but when the band rolls back on the intensity with many of these tracks, delightful intricacies that are woven into their compositions come floating to the surface. Complex arpeggiated guitar chords that twinkle and scatter about run amok from track to track, displaying guitarist Brent Hinds’ hillbilly leanings from his side band Friend without a Face. Guitar solos have never played a big part in Mastodon’s sound, but here we have more fiery leads than on any other Mastodon record, and Brent truly goes to town when given this opportunity. Drummer Brann Dailor’s fills tend not to be as intense as on The Hunter (many of his fills here tend to be snare rolls), but his timekeeping can become quite jazzy revealing the influence of fusion players of decade’s past. Mastodon continues to explore their instruments and their capabilities in playing them, making this one of the most technically advanced records in their discography.
Technical proficiency is wonderfully paired with sharp songwriting on Once More ‘Round the Sun. Never before has the band written catchier choruses than the ones found here, with “The Motherload” and “Ember City” being some of the best examples, both of which are sung by Dailor. With Dailor’s role as a singer being increased exponentially, all three singers in Mastodon get a pretty equal time in the spotlight. If only rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher could join in with his ferocious scream that only gets used live, then that would really be something to savor. Compositionally, These tracks bob and weave through various segments and possess a god deal of unpredictability, harkening back to their one-off prog rock album Crack the Skye but with shorter song lengths overall. This intricacy joined with such catchiness makes for a delectably exciting listen, proving that Mastodon can rock hard and write a good song while still being fun and accessible. They’ve hit all the marks here.
The only gripes one might have with this record might be with the last track “Diamond in the Witch House”. While it is heavy and doomy throughout, no problem there, it stylistically doesn’t fit with the rest of the record which is mainly based on forward movement rather than plodding over a couple of heavy riffs. Scott Kelly of Neurosis fame makes an appearance here as well, but his vocal contribution is marred by a truly irritating effect that’s layered over him for who knows what reason. Other than those minor quibbles, it looks like Mastodon has hit it out of the park yet again. It combines their fun side and their serious side to make an excellently well-rounded release that takes them further away from their past and places them into a thrilling present, all while preparing them for a future that cannot be predicted. That is the trajectory that only truly exceptional bands can have.