Mastodon’s 2011 record The Hunter represented a significant, if predictable, turning point in their career. Having earned a respectable degree of mainstream popularity and critical acclaim through heady, yet accessible psychedelic sludge records, Mastodon very deliberately decided to meet their peaking success by transforming into essentially a heavy rock band. The prog had reached critical mass, but Mastodon clearly had one thing left to prove in their ever-shifting sonic palate, and that is their capacity for radio-rock stardom. The Hunter obviously didn’t quite launch the group into Black Album levels of mega-stardom, but it was nonetheless surreal to hear “Curl of the Burl” and “Dry Bone Valley” pop up alongside the likes of Disturbed and Drowning Pool on the local buttrock radio station.
After the relative success of The Hunter, it really should surprise no one that its successor Once More ‘Round the Sun is as poppy and gritless as it is. The aggro-sludge of Remission and Leviathan has necessarily been jettisoned and the expansive psychedelia of Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye axed completely, leaving in its place bouncy, heavy rock buffed to a waxy sheen and stuffed to the brim with chorus after sickly-sweet chorus. Even its heaviest track – the single “High Road” – goes nowhere near the tar-black heave that once was Mastodon’s signature. Instead, it stomps something like a prog-sludge Foo Fighters.
There’s still some prog superfluity left over from the days of Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye in the guitar playing of Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds, but it’s mostly residual – on “Chimes at Midnight,” arguably the record’s moodiest track, the band dwells in the atmospheric arpeggiating for a scant 30 seconds before settling back into a bouncy pocket. “Tread Lightly” and “The Motherload” similarly bounce with a sense of triumph and celebration, as if Mastodon were enlivened by their newfound mainstream success.
At its best, it’s infectious. The title track and “Halloween” are propulsive hard rock numbers made rhythmic and robust by Brann Dailor’s unusually restrained drumming. He’s still busier than most, but his performance is tastefully laid back, and the songs are groovier for it. The aforementioned opening tracks “Tread Lightly” and “The Motherload” similarly crackle with more enthusiasm and sheer joy than anything else in the Mastodon discography. It’s so breathlessly benign and contagiously friendly that it almost high-fives you right out of the speaker, daring you not to let your guard down and finally join the party.
However, the good-time radio rock party inevitably comes with the price of homogenization. Once More… is an easy record to like because Mastodon have lowered the bar for themselves; they are no longer the fearless, hungry explorers of the nethermost reaches of intelligent heavy metal they once rightly touted themselves to be, and it’s not long before Once More… begins to come off as a kind of artistic resignation, the product of trailblazers no longer interested in – or perhaps even capable of – satisfying the increasingly high standards of headiness expected of them. It’s hard to wonder where else they could have gone after climbing Blood Mountain and cracking open the sky itself, so to speak.
This is why I feel so compelled to go soft on Mastodon in 2014. It would have been easy to amplify my fanboy indignation and dig into them for releasing a record as frankly artless as Once More…, but I also believe a complete critique should weigh in the intentions of the artist as well as that of the audience. A good majority of us might have wished for another metal record of the narrative and sonic ambition of Leviathan and Crack the Skye, but Mastodon are clearly done making classic albums, and I think they deserve the right to lower the bar they set so high with grace and earnestness. Is it not okay for Mastodon to chill out a little and pen a record meant for a high school “party in the woods”? Mastodon know that mainstream contentedness hardly breeds hungry metal, and they know it’s high time to enjoy their success and act like the de facto rockstars they’ve become.