The staggering ambition of the Atlanta quartet's first four albums, concept works all, made them a favorite of metal connoisseurs, who prized the band for its ambition, epic scope and instrumental dexterity while still swinging the heavy hammer of the gods.
Yet, there's not much of the preening, the outsized personalities associated with mainstream metal. The foursome's albums touch on virtually all of the major subgenres in metal the last three decades: progressive, death and doom, thrash. No overwhelming single figure or frontman defines its sound. Bassist Troy Sanders, drummer Brann Dailor, and guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher come across as an all-for-one gang that shares everything, including lead vocals and songwriting. This elusiveness is also a strength, putting the focus on the songs.
Relatively unadorned songs was what "The Hunter," the band's 2011 release, was all about, a trend continued on "Once More 'Round the Sun," which was produced by Nick Raskulinecz, who has helped the likes of Foo Fighters, Deftones and Alice in Chains craft albums that pumped up the stadium rattling hooks. More so than any previous Mastodon album, the new one strings together concise songs with big choruses and glistening guitar interplay. Its streamlined power shares many characteristics with the cleaner brand of melodic Swedish death metal as perfected by At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity and In Flames.
Gone are the days when Mastodon obsessed in its lyrics about astral travel, Moby Dick and Greek mythology. The musical interludes, serpentine suite-like structures and mid-song digressions are gone too. This is as straight-ahead as Mastodon has ever sounded, and despite the sometimes dire subject matter (the deaths of close friends and family members provide subtext for several songs) the mood is mostly upbeat.
"Tread Lightly" opens the door with galaxies of acoustic guitars creating a spacious feel that shifts into a droning backdrop for rampaging drums and an electric guitar riff that drops like an anvil from the top of Valhalla. "The Motherlode" continues the riff barrage and turns a desperate plea into one of the band's most uncharacteristically hopeful choruses: "This time, this time everything will be just fine/We won't let you slip away."
For Mastodon diehards it may come across as a little too simplistic, a little too pop. The experiments or distinguishing touches are more contained. Some transform the songs for the better: the slide guitar that circles before fragmenting around the title track, the way the guitars chime, unify and then break loose in the almost-pretty "Asleep in the Deep." Other left turns feel tacked on: the female cheerleader vocals in "Aunt Lisa" command, "Hey! Ho! Let's get up and rock and roll!" That's the kind of cliché Mastodon once routinely avoided.
In embracing a more accessible and structured sound, Mastodon can't help but sound more conventional. But it's also never been more consistently melodic. One could do worse as a gateway into metal or into the more ambitious and accomplished albums in Mastodon's past.
'Once More 'Round the Sun'
3 stars (out of 4)