Mastodon's sixth studio album, Once More 'Round The Sun, hit record stores today. It marks the first new album from the Atlanta-based rockers since 2011's The Hunter.
This mammoth of an album stretches just short of an hour in duration and proves, contrary to what some have feared, the band has not lost its touch, nor its edge as they reign high above the rest of the kingdom of metal. They brought in Nashville-based Nick Raskulinecz to produce the album, as well as various guests, including Neurosis' Scott Kelly on the album's closing track, "Diamonds In The Witch House."
Interestingly, for a band that Rolling Stone hailed as "the greatest metal band of their generation," they open up their newest album's first track, "Tread Lightly," with a rambunctiously played acoustic guitar. This brief moment of tranquility is short-lived, however, before their trademark sound comes thrashing across the speakers. The first thing to be noted is that this is a much more mature Mastodon than the group that first emerged in 2002 with Remission. The same instrumentation -- dual lead guitarists, bass, and drums -- remains intact, but the screams that occupied much of their pre-Blood Mountain catalog have been swept away for the band's newfound preference for clean vocals. But, fans of the old days shouldn't be turned away since their characteristic face-melting guitar solos are still at the forefront of the mix, and the first solo occurs in latter portion of the the album's introductory track.
The second cut of the album, "The Motherload," displays a remarkable level of percussive mastery from the band's drummer, Brann Dailor. Dailor's ability to play in asymmetric meters and irregular time signatures is at an apex across this album and harkens back to his pre-Mastodon days with mathcore project Lethargy.
The title track, "Once More 'Round The Sun," features his rapid, machine gun-esque fills, which take direct inspiration from the glory days of prog rock, as well as the bebop era of jazz. Dailor's specific performance style stems from locking in with the guitarists, as opposed to bassists, like most traditional drummers. This entanglement of guitar and percussion might also be reflective of his early career in Lethargy, where he performed alongside one of the band's lead guitarists, Bill Kelliher.
Kelliher's playing, alongside fellow guitarist Brent Hinds, makes for a truly sinister opening to the following track, titled "Chimes At Midnight." This composition functions in many ways as an homage to the early days of Mastodon and the dark compositions with fantastical lyrics that haven't been quite as prevalent in their newer material. The coda at the end of the track is a recapitulates of the intro and delivers this menacing song some closure in its final seconds.
The sixth track, "Asleep In The Deep," is a six-minute epic that opens with a thundering bassline striking on the downbeat, and a guitar melody that quickly modulates while remaining rhythmically identical to the original melodic line. The B-section of the song takes on a half-time feel, briefly easing the tension of the track. The the song ends with a bombastic guitar solo while simultaneously occurring vocal lines rage on in parallel harmony.
"Feast Your Eyes" is the second shortest track on the album, but don't assume that it lacks content compared to its longer brethren. It's an up-tempo rocker that harnesses the sounds of the band's hard rock influences, as well as an ominous bridge section that features a driving backbeat from Dailor and a disturbingly haunting melody from the guitars.
The album's eighth track, "Aunt Lisa," opens with a well-crafted diminished / octatonic melody in the guitars. Songs such as "Aunt Lisa" serve as a reminder that many of the fundamental musical theories developed in the 20th century have not all been tossed towards the wayside. While it might be a small stretch to compare, Mastodon does incorporate, whether by choice or by chance, symmetrical modes of music such as those described by Olivier Messiaen as "modes of limited transposition" in his book La technique de mon langage musical. The band utilizes a dense harmonic vocabulary that sets them apart in many ways from others who debuted at the same time as them, as well as those that continue to come out today.
In the following track, "Halloween," the band's usage of complex harmony is further realized in the opening guitar melody. The penultimate track uses its title as a means to foreshadow the music to come. Many of the song's moments are sinister and brooding, yet some are deceptively optimistic. The guitar solo enters, then immediately plunges through time into the glory days of classic rock with a rapid succession of pentatonic scales, which make for much easier listening than the melody at the beginning of the song. The solo progresses onwards while panning within the rest of the mix, yet never halting. The rest of the band stop and start like heavy traffic at each intersection of a crowded city street, before ending with only the sound of guitar feedback.
The final track of the album, "Diamonds In The Witch House," features guest vocals from frequent Mastodon collaborator Scott Kelly of the Oakland-based band Neurosis. Kelly's contributions to Once More 'Round The Sun mark the fifth album in the Mastodon discography of which he's been a part. The song stands at a mighty seven minutes and forty-nine seconds -- not as lengthy as their longest offering, "The Last Baron," from 2009's Crack the Skye, but still a remarkable feat nonetheless. The last minute of the song contains screeching vocals over a throbbing drum beat with the final mantra, "We will shatter you!" repeating three times over, bringing this behemoth of an album to a close.
Unlike their early material, Mastodon's previous LP saw a departure from utilizing strict lyrical concepts. However, Once More 'Round The Sun actually falls somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum with death being the central theme, as pointed out by guitarist Bill Kelliher in a 2013 interview with Ultimate-Guitar:
It always makes for really good story telling. It's kind of the theme that we have a lot in our music. We've had a lot of friends pass away since the last record. I'm not really sure yet. I think we're kind of focusing more about living on this earth and what would happen if this was your last year to live. I think that's sort of maybe a little bit of what we might be kind of touching on.
One of the first things anyone who has tracked the progress of this album will notice is the dark, psychedelic visual concepts that have been realized both in the album artwork and the audio visualizers released on YouTube for singles "High Road" and "Chimes At Midnight." The artwork was done by Oakland-based artist Skinner, whose self-described "psychedelic nightmare paintings" were utilized across various media for the album. You can check out more of his work at his official website. In regards to Skinner's contributions to the album, singer and bassist Troy Sanders stated in an interview with Paste Magazine:
It’s going to be a work of art for sure. It’s going to be very eye-opening, very striking. It’s from another dimension, and a lot of our music is geared toward that idea—taking you to another planet on songs. It’s out there, and I think it’s incredible.
This album contains a lot of material, and is in many ways difficult to digest in only a handful of listening sessions. It's remarkable to consider how far the American kings of metal have come since their 2002 debut, and it will be exciting to watch where they go from here. With few breaks since their careers took off, they've been constantly cycling through moments of work on stage, and in the studio. Sanders discussed his feelings about constant touring with Paste Magazine:
In a nutshell: we’re fortunate enough to do this again, but there’s this feeling of this yearly cycle. It’s not a bad thing. We get to go tour a bunch, we get to record a bunch of songs we love. It’s embracing the positive—the wonderful side, to be able to have the same four dudes who love doing what we do so much. And like anything in the Mastodon world, it’s open to interpretation.
Mastodon Once More 'Round The Sun Tracklist:
1. "Tread Lightly" - 5:14
2. "The Motherload" - 5:00
3. "High Road" - 4:16
4. "Once More 'Round The Sun" - 2:59
5. "Chimes At Midnight" - 5:32
6. "Asleep In The Deep" ft Valient Himself & Ikey Owens 6:13
7. "Feast Your Eyes" - 3:24
8. "Aunt Lisa" ft The Coat Hangers & Gary Lindsey - 4:08
9. "Ember City" - 4:59
10. "Halloween" - 4:39
11. "Diamonds In The Witch House" ft Scott Kelly of Neurosis - 7:49