Nirvana's Nevermind turns 20 this year, but if you have it mind to pay your respects to the memory of St. Cobain, I suggest you avoid the gaudy reissue packages of the seminal album and reverent live tributes and instead pick up a copy of Mastodon's latest. The peerless Georgia metal quartet has always embodied Nirvana's spirit of uncompromising heaviness, but with The Hunter, they can now claim to have fully realized the latent pop instincts that lurked beneath the sludgy prog of Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye. Of course, I'm using "pop" in the most expansive sense of the word (no album featuring vocals from Neurosis's Scott Kelly is going to scan as traditional pop). The Hunter contains the most galvanizing and bizarrely moving songs that Mastodon has set to record, and the argument for their being pop has less to do with their relative accessibility than the way that the standout tracks seem instantly familiar and universal. Sure, there's not a single song here that could stand up to the immortal "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but Mastodon evidently shares Nirvana's gift for synthesizing pop from the most unlikely, and seemingly least commercial, ingredients.
I imagine Mike Elizonodo's production plays a part in The Hunter's dynamic, nearly radio-ready sound. It's not often that you see a metal band working with an industry hand who regularly spends time in the studio with American Idol alums. But you never get the impression that Mastodon has been forced to compromise their sound; instead, the subtle melodic elements that have grown increasingly prominent in their work are magnified so that harmonized guitar leads jump out of the metal murk a little more readily and the guys' voices blend a little more cleanly (as with the Beatles, everyone in Mastodon contributes vocals). It also helps that the band has taken a break from the conceptual album conceits that characterized their last three releases. With no overarching narrative about ogres or astral projection, Mastodon has mustered a more varied and occasionally even humorous album than I'd have guessed they were capable of. Even if they weren't great rock tunes, "Curl of the Burl," "The Octopus Has No Friends," and "Bedazzled Fingernails" would be boast-worthy for their titles alone.
Better still than the album's titles: its choruses. Last time Mastodon penned anything resembling an anthem was Blood Mountain's "Colony of Birchmen," and they only pulled that off with an assist from Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme. But nearly half the songs on The Hunter build to some kind of satisfying vocal hook, and the best ones ("Blasteroid," "Octopus," and "The Creature Lives") are sing-alongs on first listen. The fact that these choruses can emerge naturally from a Torche-like pop-metal tune or jump unexpectedly out of something much more abstract just adds to the album's unpredictable appeal. What's lost in coherence is more than made up for by The Hunter's wild stylistic breadth.
By foregrounding Mastodon's pop smarts, I'm not trying to imply that The Hunter doesn't have it's share of freaky digressions. This may be a more commercial affair that Mastodon has yet released, but these metal auteurs haven't stepped back from their love of all things mystical and psychedelic. The influence of Pink Floyd looms especially large over "The Hunter," a syrupy ballad of sorts that has Troy Sanders paraphrasing the Beatles ("And all the love I make is equal to the love I take") before Brett Hinds launches into one of his trademark fret-burners. Elsewhere, you're liable to get insane guitar breaks reminiscent of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," bluesy stomp a la Zeppelin, and awesome, harmonized soloing straight out of the Iron Maiden playbook. Classic rock, prog, and grunge all get thrown into Mastodon's heavy-metal blender, and the sound that comes out is distinctively the band's own.
Fans who have followed Mastodon this far definitely won't be disappointed by their new direction, while rock fans who have previously found the band overwhelmingly strange just might want to give The Hunter a chance. Mastodon already vies with Black Sabbath and Metallica in terms of their ability to appeal to listeners who don't normally go for metal, though they're undoubtedly more significant among hardcore fans of the genre than either of those groups were at their commercial peak. Crack the Skye was a gift to heavy metal that the band will likely never top, a culmination of all the insane solos, proggy detours, and thunderous sludge riffing that had defined the first decade of Mastodon's career. If The Hunter is slightly less accomplished (occasionally the more radio-oriented tunes fall flat and end up sounding like warmed-over Tool), it's also a much greater risk, with Mastodon attempting new styles in which their far less practiced. As a first stab in the direction of avant-garde pop-metal, The Hunter is pretty damn compelling.