Mastodon were on a steady path for four albums running. Concept albums, somehow related to a particular classical element, a consistently mellowing sound from album to album, and some sweet Paul Romano cover art. You knew what you were getting into when you bought a Mastodon album. They were dependable. For their latest offering, The Hunter, they have decided to eschew all of those reliable albums' elements for something entirely new, but no less awesome.
The first thing you notice about The Hunter is its cover artwork. The actual sculpture used for the front cover is like nothing else in the band's catalog. This is emblematic of the bigger changes that follow. Things start off fairly familiarly with "Black Tongue". The song sounds like a slightly sped-up version of Crack the Skye's "Oblivion" until the Leviathan-esque riff kicks in about halfway through. This is a nice little nod to the band's past before things start to get weird. The next track, "Curl of the Burl" is perhaps the most immediately catchy song the band has ever penned. Its melody and fuzzed-out guitars recall Queens of the Stone Age's better radio material.
Since the band have decided to not write a concept album for the first time since 2002's Remission, one would think they might try to write some personal, reflective lyrics. For any other band that may have been the case, but Mastodon have taken this opportunity to get even weirder. The aforementioned "Curl of the Burl" begins with the charming phrase "I killed a man, 'cause he killed my goat." The chorus of "Blasteroid" proclaims "I wanna drink some fucking blood! I wanna break some fucking glass!" Meanwhile, "Stargasm" is about exactly what you think it's about. We've only just covered the first four songs on the album. This weirdness factor lasts throughout the duration of The Hunter, and only adds to its uniqueness. Can you imagine songs called "Bedazzled Fingernails" or "Octopus Has No Friends" making the cut on any of their earlier albums?
Another major difference between The Hunter and their earlier work is the role of producer Mike Elizondo, whose previous producing credits include work for 50 Cent, Carrie Underwood, and Maroon 5. His slick pop style actually works surprisingly well with Mastodon's unique brand of sludge metal. Everything sounds HUGE.
As always, bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds trade vocals throughout the album, though there are some other participants in that department. Scott Kelly of Neurosis guests on "Spectrelight", and drummer Brann Dailor, whose only previous vocal contributions were on the verses of Crack the Skye's "Oblivion" and the jokey King Diamond-esque "Cut You Up with a Linoleum Knife" from the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie, takes the lead here on "Creature Lives". The song is perhaps the most mellow track in the group's history. As with their previous outing, Crack the Skye, the majority of the vocals on The Hunter are sung cleanly, rather than the grunts and screams of their early work, but the energy level is way up from that album throughout its runtime.
The Hunter is unmistakably a Mastodon album, but it also showcases a variety of new directions the band has never braved before. It will be interesting to see where they go from here. Until then, The Hunter stands as one of, if not the best metal album of 2011.