Album Review: Mastodon, ‘Once More ‘Round the Sun’

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“HEY! HO! LET’S FUCKING GO!
HEY! HO! LET’S GET UP AND ROCK ‘N ROLL!”

I’m not quoting some twisted version of “Blitzkrieg Bop” but rather the end of “Aunt Lisa,” just one of the many standout tracks on Mastodon’s new opus, Once More ‘Round the Sun. It seems absurd on paper — even more so considering the vocals are provided by the punk band The Coathangers — but the refrain serves as a fiery conclusion to an already-simmering song. Brazen flourishes like this are what separate Once More ‘Round the Sun from the rest of Mastodon’s discography. Never before has the band sounded like it’s having so much fun.

The Atlanta metallers’ sixth album is a rousing mix of the crushing sound that put them on the map and the catchy hooks that proved divisive on 2011’s The Hunter. Once More ‘Round the Sun shouldn’t suffer the same fate, however, as it seems the guys finally figured out how to have their cake and eat it too. There’s nothing quite as rudimentary as The Hunter single “Curl of the Burl,” and none of the material exhibits the head-spinning complexity of 2009’s Crack the Skye, either. From the very first jangling chords of “Tread Lightly” — a track that does anything but — Mastodon is firing on all cylinders. Every member sounds like they’re on the same page and the end result is a kick-ass listening experience.

Chimes at Midnight

Mastodon is revered among the metal community for its instrumental virtuosity, a trait that bogged down the band’s earlier records almost as often as it helped. Drummer Brann Dailor in particular displayed a bad habit of showing off his tremendous abilities to the point of distraction. Thankfully, he’s reigned in the kamikaze drum fills just enough to allow for some breathing room, instead compensating with a refined and limber sense of groove. Once More ‘Round the Sun finds Dailor locked right in with bassist Troy Sanders, playing in service of the song like never before. Their rhythms keep the record brimming with momentum.

Meanwhile, guitar heroes Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher rip some face-melting solos on “Tread Lightly”, ”The Motherload” and “Ember City”. Their intricate harmonies are enviable, their riffs relentless, and the guitar tones producer Nick Raskulinecz conjured from the duo are straight-up massive. Raskulinecz’s production tends to be hit or miss. Not on this record—every instrument is crisp and discernible without losing that signature Mastodon chunk. But for the first time the band’s strongest asset is its triple threat of vocalists, all of whom make their presence known in unique ways. Hinds slurs his words in a manner similar to Ozzy Osbourne, Dailor’s clean tenor cuts through the chaos, and Sanders roars from the mountaintops with unmistakable grit.

Their brand of vocal versatility is a rarity in metal, and it keeps things fresh even when the band’s songwriting occasionally plays it safe. Take the first single, “High Road”, for instance. Nothing about its composition is enough to shake up the Mastodon status quo, but “High Road” shines on the strength of an impossibly meaty verse riff and a chorus powered by confident vocal harmonies. It’s destined for singalong status at live shows. The same can be said for “The Motherload”, a tightly constructed rocker where Dailor and Sanders trade off singing duties to great effect.

Fear not, Mastodon diehards—not every song on Once More ‘Round the Sun is so easily accessible. “Aunt Lisa” astounds with its dizzying guitar playing and stop-start time signature changes, while “Chimes at Midnight” cranks up the tempo for a foray into Iron Maiden-style galloping rhythms. “Diamond in the Witch House” closes the album in epic fashion, stretching out to eight minutes by way of spooky chord progressions and foreboding vocals from Hinds. It’s also a peculiar choice for a closer. The song’s pessimistic atmosphere and sluggish pounding stick out like a sore thumb among the rest of the record’s radiance. It’s the weakest song here but by no means a poor one.

According to Sanders, Once More ‘Round the Sun encompasses a year in the life of the band. As Mastodon continues to maintain the same lineup for 14 years and counting, the bassist identified a sense of routine starting to set in:

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“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.”

“Open to interpretation” is a good way to put it, especially since Kelliher posited the record as a rumination on the inevitability of death. His speculation is supported by some of the songs on the album: “Aunt Lisa” is Dailor’s attempt at a proper goodbye to his wild relative, while “Diamonds in the Witch House” and “Tread Lightly” tackle the daunting responsibility of parenthood. Whatever the case may be, Mastodon sounds as vital and energized as ever in the process of jamming out its most immediate work to date. Funnily enough, Dailor skipped the thematic analysis to describe the album as follows:

“It’s gonna be massive and insane, lots of epic greatness,” he says. “There will be lots of huge riffs and new directions. It’s real weird, real math-y, real straightforward. It’s up, down and all around.”

He’s right on the money. Once More ‘Round the Sun is anything but a tedious trip with Mastodon at the wheel. Enjoy the ride.

4/5 stars

Related Articles:

The Singles Party: Mastodon, ‘Chimes At Midnight’ (Staff)

Interview: Amon Amarth (Anthony Toto)

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Nick Porcaro is a 24-year old graphic designer, musician and writer based in Jersey City, NJ. Nick graduated in 2012 from UArts in Philadelphia, PA with a BFA in Graphic Design. As a musician he’s played guitar for over 10 years, in addition to dabbling in bass, drums and vocals. Nick currently plays rhythm guitar with Max Feinstein and has worked with Matt Scuteri, Sara Martin, Shakedown Inc., and The Nerd Who Ate St. Louis. When he’s not freelancing for the Wilma Theater, Nick is writing songs for his debut solo record.

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