Review Summary: Mastodon takes another jaunt, ‘round the sun, to the mountain before cracking the skye.
Mastodon’s biggest selling point over the course of their career has been their ability to churn through variations of their own soundscapes with an unapologetic ease. Not only does every album sound like an extension of the masterminds behind them, but each respective release has its own sense of individuality. Whether it’s the group’s early days; albums tampering with both mythos and majestic contextual frames a la Remission
, the stories of beasts and Ahab from the sophomore Leviathan
or more modern cuts that would identify with a band continually moving forwards within their field, Mastodon have always maintained a comparative fresher feel while crafting their newer compositions. More recently, the likes of The Hunter
, Once More ‘Round The Sun
and Emperor Of Sand
cleaved away from the progressive psychedelia of Crack The Skye
. This move would step on and off the path of modern sludge meets progressive rock, streamlining the familiar Mastodon ‘sound’ into something less decisive than the record that came before it while remaining true to the group’s natural tendencies to eschew seventies rock, heavy metal and their own distinctive take on southern sludge. Three vocalists all enter contributions, masculine cornerstones touch on hook driven melodies while the occasional roar cuts through the band’s thicker sonic reverberations while a hurricane of liberating musicianship pushes the listener through Mastodon’s storied chapters.
So how does this Georgian’s latest export compare to a back catalog that’s received steady, if not critical success over the span of the last two decades? Does Hushed and Grim
justify its length; being both the band’s longest record to date and a double album? Is this ninety minute opus the megalodon or elephant in the room? The short answer? Yes. The longer answer? Also yes. Phew! Glad I got that out of the way. Now we can all just get that beer, order a parmi...oh ***, you’re still here? Right.
In simple terms Hushed and Grim
is the best Mastodon record in a decade. That’s not to say that the trio of records after Crack The Skye
shirked in the quality department, but where The Hunter
yin’d, Once More ‘Round The Sun
yang’d—before culminating in a record that impressed, dabbling in the nuance that brought them to where they are today. I don’t mean to undersell the larger part of the group’s discography, Once More ‘Round The Sun
occasionally sounding like a sore thumb more than it deserves—a slight blemish in the veneer that would otherwise cover the best of mahogany. As such, Mastodon’s musical framework has become less about intensity and more about the mood and context. The [recent] usual covid disclaimer applies here, after all Mastodon went through the same touring and promotional pitfalls as so many other acts across the globe, but Hushed and Grim
is largely a representation of the quartet’s experiences over the last few years, with longtime manager and friend Nick John succumbing to pancreatic cancer in 2018 standing as a larger example. Mastodon could be forgiven for allowing sorrow, melancholy and frustration seep into their writing. Thankfully, Mastodon’s newest slab of metal is far from the droll brilliance that listeners have come to expect over the course of the last decade. Instead, Hushed and Grim
deserves its spot within the discussion of “best Mastodon record” to date. Yes actually.
Even with that loading, it’s worth addressing a larger point here, because Hushed and Grim
is indeed new ground for these Georgian riff masters. Not only is their new album thirty minutes longer than what we would expect from a Mastodon release, it’s also the band’s first double album. At almost ninety minutes, Hushed and Grim
is long, but filler material is virtually non-existent
. Contextual sentiments are immediate, paved by the opener, “Pain with an Anchor” with its fair share of lurching, forward moving riffs and (drummer) Brann Dailor’s chastened lyrics. Stylistically, this track (and some of the others to follow) could’ve slid right into Emperor Of Sand
or ...’Round The Sun
’s track listing and yet, there’s a definable detachment from those particular albums in Mastodon’s newest music. There are poignant callbacks to Crack The Skye
, Blood Mountain
and their style becomes a mesmeric hold for the new and older fan alike. More punishing cuts like “The Crux”, “Pushing The Tides” feel like modern takes from Mastodon’s golden Blood Mountain
era while staying sure footed in the mannerisms that ensure the progressive tinged profoundness hinted at throughout Emperor Of Sand
On the other hand, Hushed and Grim
is full of restraint, moments that allow a listener to breathe in “Sickle and Peace’s” weighted chorus. The hook is well placed, but isn’t intrusive—a sultry hand extended from Mastodon’s endearing body; one that would pull you into their gentle, yet firm embrace. “The Beast” is a well-placed curveball that jolts the momentum of the record thus far. Blues driven twangs push through melancholic vocals, they intertwine and soar without fighting each other for the spotlight. Again, nuance a la Crack The Skye
bulks the bridging sections and the transitions feel lush and airy. More importantly, they provide a sense of journey; whether that’s the foreboding atmosphere or the expectation of more to come, the music provides a compelling reason to stay, to continue, to help Mastodon push on. “The Beast” is a dance of vintage vocal phrasing, easy-breezy blues riffs and Mastodon’s penchant for progressive-tinged psychedelic metal. It’s a welcome combination amongst the charging furor of “The Crux”, “Dagger” or “Pushing The Tides” as Brent Hinds shines through his guitar work, rather than a focus on the man’s vocal passages.
“Skeleton of Splendor” continues to entrance through subdued musicianship. Where earlier records had songs barreling their way through their runtime, tracks like “Skeleton of Splendor” provide a less is more approach to the song’s instrumentation, allowing the record’s contextual weight to do the work. Repeated vocal motifs effortlessly snare the ear while the song’s guitar solo blossoms; a psychedelia infused spring flower bursting with colour and vigor. Even as we run towards the album’s halfway point, more dissonant, gruff and angular compositions (“Pushing The Tides” is a natural example here) make for an interesting contrast; a dichotomy to prevent blurring as Hushed and Grim
steadily moves towards its culmination. As such, there’s really no filler here, save for the few brooding verse moments of “Peace and Tranquility” which is saved once again by a masterful guitar solo. While Hinds might be guilty of overworking the pentatonic scale to which his blues driven sections are built, it’s hard to find fault in the organic, near-raw guitar tone that imbues this record. On the other hand, you can feel the contextual weight of “Dagger”, if there was any reason to question just where Mastodon put their feelings for a fallen friend this track lyrically outlines just how much death and separation can affect us. Some deeper, poignant, relatable moments bleed from the speakers into our ears and
Despite almost ninety minutes of highlights, some tracks manage to stick out ever so slightly. While I’ve already mentioned the likes of “The Crux”, “Pushing The Tides”, “Sickle and Peace”...most of the album so far really… “Gobblers of Dregs” ushers in the best closing section to a record Mastodon has ever done. Crushing riffs surge like a giant stomping down a hillside, before side-stepping into classic stoner rock aesthetic. Typically, it sounds classically “Mastodon”, leaning heavily into the group’s more melodic songwriting chops (read: still progressive, still sludgy) and lighter Tool (think Lateralus
) comparisons. Another of Hinds’ guitar solos finds itself in full flight while Brann puts on an absolute drum clinic (here, and everywhere else).
There is something
to be said about Hushed and Grim
’s production and mixing. While I’ll admit it’s not perfect by the usual standards we hold heavier climes to, it’s near-perfect in regards to the laid-back, blues-cum-progressive metal extremities to which the group’s 2021 effort caters. Rather than compress the album’s larger sound, identifying with a crystal-like clarity on the sum of all its parts, the mixing instead offers an organic freedom. Yes, it’s more trebly across the board, washing out some of the track’s less intense vocals—but it breathes more because of it. The guitar solos really shine, as does Troy Sanders’ bass licks and while normally that would result in some cymbal and hi-hat sounds going A.W.O.L. Dailor’s china strikes compliment Hinds’ hugging of the pentatonic scale. All in all, Hushed and Grim
’s production faults are a minor blemish on an otherwise spectacular release.
With so many callbacks to other albums over the years it’s little to no wonder as to why Mastodon’s latest offering is such a worthy gem. Both new and older fans should find more than a moment to enjoy. As ambitious a double album like this is, there’s credit due. Not only did Mastodon release the longest outing of their career, they did so with class. As of yet I haven’t quite managed to pinpoint just where Hushed and Grim
stands as I rank Mastodon’s storied discography. I’d like a few more years of heavy listening rotations before I cement where this sits around the likes of discography cornerstones, Blood Mountain
and Crack The Skye
. I do however know that this is the best Don we’ve had for a decade.