So what happens if people close to Mastodon stop dying? Lately, the Reaper has been a muse for the Atlanta quartet; at least some aspect of their past three efforts has featured means by which to memorialize and seek catharsis for the death of someone close (or even tangential) to them. 2009’s Crack the Skye, their fourth and most personal album, was written as a way for drummer Brann Dailor to process the suicide of his sister some twenty years previous. The Hunter, their 2011 offering, featured the lovely eulogy “The Sparrow”, this time to say goodbye to the late wife of their accountant. Dailor’s experiences of loss continue the trend in the bizarre, excellent “Aunt Lisa” which helps support the back half of Mastodon’s newest release, Once More ‘Round the Sun, a strong effort, if a bit light on creative progress.
There is more than simply grief that connects the latest album to the ambitious, proggy Crack the Skye. The crushing assault of 2004’s aptly named Leviathan and the quixotic art-metal of Blood Mountain that followed in 2006 are gone, replaced largely with clean, layered vocals and a mature, considered approach to aggression. Unlike Crack The Skye however, there is a sense of compactness and restraint that can work for or against the tracks offered. “Tread Lightly” is a capable opener, all rolling guitars and post-grunge breakdowns, and serves as a good indicator of the band’s current orientation. The follow-up, “Motherload” is about as accessible and ‘radio-friendly’ as Mastodon gets, with Troy Sanders’ cleaned-up vocals providing an anthemic sing-along track worthy of Dailor’s increasingly virtuosic drum work.
However, there is a sameness that weighs down an otherwise excellent record. The line between consistency and homogeneity is a notoriously thin and ill-defined barrier, and by the album’s jangly, laconic midpoint, “Asleep in the Deep”, one starts to crave a jolt of something unexpected. Crack the Skye was an album loomed over by behemoths; ten-plus minute epics complete with movements delineated by not-even-remotely-pretentious roman numerals. It sometimes feels as though Once More is comprised of about three more of those (admittedly fantastic) filibusters, each broken down to its component pieces and given an individual name to go with its track number. A couple of fun standouts in the back half (“Aunt Lisa”, “Halloween”) help liven things up, but ending with the grim, shouty, overlong “Diamond in the Witch House” was a mistake that brings the LP in for a clunky landing.
The fact that they seem to have grown into a “sound” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The previous album, The Hunter, was clearly the all-over-the-place result of a band seeing what will stick among an array of things thrown at various walls. Not every album can have a “Black Tongue” (alas), but conversely no album should ever have a “Creature Lives”. So for Once More to have the sort of internal consistency it does could be a sign of strength. “Aunt Lisa”, the record’s most personal and emotional track suggests this may be the case. Musically, it’s interesting and never repetitive. Lyrically, it’s reflective and somber before turning to fist-pumping catharsis in the final minute. Thrash-spawned, chugging, the finale refuses to submit to grief as a chorus of children chants, “Hey! Ho! Let’s fucking go! Hey! Ho! Let’s get up and rock n’roll!” In moments like this, Sun shines.