When a band’s name sounds that rock, was there any doubt that their latest album wouldn’t be a bombastic frenzy of awesome? Yes, The Hunter is absolutely everything you would demand of it. The Atlanta four-piece — Troy Sanders (bassist/vocalist), Brent Hinds (guitarist/vocalist), Bill Keliher (guitarist), and Brann Dailor (drummer/vocalist) — has built a reputation for gigantic, arena-ready progressive metal, full of obscure lyricism and mind-bending instrumentation. To say that The Hunter only cements that reputation is doing the album a disservice — this is Mastodon turned up way past 11. In the hands of producer Mike Elizondo (whose credits include Dr Dre, 50 Cent, Fiona Apple, and Alanis Morissette), the big-room thunder of Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye has become a stadium-filling roar. Maxing out the stereo is the only way to go here, feeling the fireworks and light show exploding in your brain.
The Hunter sees Mastodon taking a much more riff-heavy approach — shorter songs, more bombast — without compromising their epic feel. A purist raised on the literary universes encompassed on the band’s last three albums (Leviathan, 2004; Blood Mountain, 2006; and Crack the Skye, 2009) could pine for the 13-minute cosmic journey, but The Hunter is just as expansive as any of Mastodon’s earlier efforts, despite the lack of Hawkwind-style noodling. Having a pop radio producer at the helm seems not to have diminished the band’s determination to push boundaries, but rather to have made that desire more concise, more focused, and somehow more powerful. The shine given to The Hunter is definitely worthy of Warner Bros. (the parent of Reprise), and a measure of rock-radio friendliness hasn’t been a barrier to metal bands in the past.
That’s not to say that Mastodon have lost their prog-stoner credentials. The epic themes remain, blended masterfully with glorious guitar theatrics (title track “The Hunter” is a standout). I defy the listener not to utterly rock out to tracks like “Dry Bone Valley” or the brilliant B-movie swamp of “The Creature Lives.” Yes, there’s a track called “The Creature Lives,” and it’s great. In fact, “The Creature Lives” and its sister-in-tempo-and-scale, closing track “The Sparrow,” are the furthest deviation from the hard-rockin’ template of the album — slower, more reflective, with a ballad-like sheen that allows the listener a moment to breathe. “Spectrelight,” with its scintillating turn by Neurosis’ Scott Kelly (reprising a similar vocal appearance on Crack the Skye), hurls ghostly visions of firebirds and unknowable things rising from the ocean, while track titles like “Blasteroid” and “Stargasm” make no secret of their cosmic credentials. The howls and screeches of both Troy Sanders’ and Brent Hinds’ vocal performances are better used on The Hunter than previously, a kind of Sabbath-meets-Metallica squall that is by no means perfect pop material, but is eminently suited to the rapturously hokey landscape conjured here.
Unusually for Mastodon, The Hunter isn’t a concept album. There’s no reincarnated Rasputins riding Moby Dick up a mountain or whatever, but there’s certainly thematic coherence and aesthetic continuity. Not just in the peaks-and-troughs of the music itself, but also in the cosmic late-night movie lyrical atmosphere. Even at their most conceptual, Mastodon have never really seemed to be shoehorning material in just to fit the theme, but the lack of a restrictive focus actually seems to have blessed the band: the sheer scope of their vision is renewed again and again, with many of the album’s 13 tracks packing enough ideas into their length to fill a whole album of a lesser band. The shorter form of most of the songs (none longer than five and a half minutes) means that you rocket through The Hunter at what feels like breakneck speed, strapped to an intergalactic, pyrotechnic rollercoaster of awesome.