I’d like to start with a couple of seemingly random yet obscurely related references.
First, the definition of compound: A substance composed of two or more elements chemically combined in definite proportions by weight.
The second is a quote from a comic book villain.
“I told you my compound would take you places. I never said they’re be places you wanted to go”.
Am I going somewhere with this? Maybe. I’ll at least try. The truth is I’ve been on this 20 ish year journey with a band that I was initially scared shitless of, by what sounded like a caged animal trying to break out of the local University music venue on my way back from football practice.
Since then, Mastodon have grown professionally, artistically and personally. Loss and grief are shadows that only get longer and chase more relentlessly as time goes on, and my appreciation of this band as musicians as well as the catharsis from their work through empathy has been a comforting struggle I can barely articulate. That said, without piling on the hyperbole too much just yet, I shall now embark on my latest quest with their new album.
Mastodon. Hushed and Grim review.
The band of brothers.
Mastodon are no strangers to drawing from the elements for inspiration and indulging in the notion of concept albums, from the depths of the ocean to astral travel and back again. It does get more thematically “out there”, as well as the last few albums being more “straightforward”, having much more overarching or loosely connected songs, but that will do for now.
For all the literary and historical (not to mention otherworldly) references, it’s the tangible human emotion expressed and experiences the band have been through that help it all make sense somehow.
Do you need to be encyclopedic about captain Ahab or Rasputin? Not in the slightest. The songs rock so hard it doesn’t matter.
The band have also dealt with loss and grief with tragic regularity over the last few decades.
While it’s not my place to go in to the bands (or my) losses, it’s unfortunate that once again the band draw on familiar subject matter with Hushed and Grim.
One thing that has evolved over their career is the band dynamic and how they compliment each other as performers. Going in to this review, I had no issue with the direction taken by their last two full length releases- 2014s Once more round the Sun and Emperor of Sand three years later.
Snappy, punchy tracks like The Motherload, Highroad and especially Show yourself bringing drummer Brann Dailors vocals to the forefront (as well as Dailor himself calling the track “super poppy” by their standards), while guitarist Brent Hinds has always traded rasping screams with the guttural roars from bassist Troy Sanders.
Initially given the endearing label of “sludge metal”, fans of early work like Remission have witnessed the band pass around the vocal spotlight and gradually clearer tonality, with recent (ish) single Sultans Curse winning a GRAMMY.
But evolve the band has. They’ve always toyed with thematic ambition as well as smothering brute strength, and none more so now, with a behemoth 86 minute, 15 track double album. So, it’s an absolute beast, but as is the risk with double albums- is it bloated and lumbering or a lean, agile one?
Opener Pain with an Anchor feels like remorse incarnate. Ominous, unnerving and very much a hybrid of The wolf is Loose’s untamed speed and Oblivion’s burly stamina. The last minute or so is just absolute double kick drum and riffing full of girth and filth. It probably sounds strange to say, but to me it immediately has a “diorama” feel to it.
Intimately detailed yet vast under its cloaking atmosphere. After leaving the sun drenched desert and a fleeting visit to dank, dark caverns, this things first location is somewhere more intimidating than the fog draped gates of the impending apocalypse.
Pleading or reasoning with an entity bigger than any deities, more imposing or sinister than anything encountered before.
The Crux has a very uncomfortable yet satisfying sci fi b movie vibe before moving through the heavy gears and throwing vocal climbs and falls all over the place.
A tense yet confrontational track, with tempo changes and dramatic shifts in tone, lyrics such as the repeated “I feel pressure” and
“It’s dark inside where all my demons hide” try to comprehend grief with both aggravated hedonism and slowing solitude.
Latest single released “Sickle and Peace” is a welcome, albeit brief respite, and begins with an ominous, haunting nursery rhyme type thing before entering into a high hat shuffling and steadily swelling groove with an almost clean tone, off kilter guitar lick.
It then tumbles into a massive, thunderous chorus with bass drums that reminded me of the bridge of Blood Mountains Crystal Skull, one of my favorite tracks, before the tranquility of the verse returns. Very rigid in its “quiet/ loud” structure but varied in its tone, it’s Sanders that shows another gliding string to his vocal bow.
The line “No feelings ever final/ Just another scar I wear and hold dear” is heartbreakingly resonant.
More than I Could Chew has another effect laden intro, with looming, guttural guitar riffs over the waves of echoing, sparse harmonies. A brooding mid section with hanging high e strings and a repeated “say when and I’ll come running back” hints at the overarching concept of interpreting the notion of the afterlife.
The Beast is a smirking, twanging and bending guitar lick has Brent Hinds all over it. It’s finally his turn to have his say. He doesn’t quite reach the sweeping vocal apex of A Cold Dark place, but he perfectly suits the tone of the song and it certainly has its place on an album that mostly uses Sanders and Dailor as the vocal focal point, albeit with great effect.
“I need more time”
Dare I say it does a little bit country. After a bit of swirling guitar it truly takes off.
Ultimately though. When it’s all done, the song feels like trying to take a break- going outside, sitting on the porch, having a quiet moment to yourself to get away from all the craziness going on inside.
Skeleton of Splendor “to my detriment” Sanders repeats. As theremin and soft yet brooding guitar swoop in. Blaming one’s self is certainly a relatable idea.
Next is two very different sides of Mastodons musical coin, as the second and first single releases. A pair of Jekyll and Hyde type compositions.
Teardrinker has a real Josh Homme vibe in the vocal tone from the verse with interjections from Sanders and Hinds. They stab aggression into an overtly reflective track, and sorrowful lyrics that pull on the heart strings litter the chorus-
“I feel ashamed/ I’ve let you down again”.
AND THERES A BASS SOLO! A FUZZY BASS SOLO!!!
Things do briefly take a familiar sinister turn, with a pair of sharp, swift Hinds solos. Overall, it’s a decent enough hook and no doubt a very personal song, but almost meanders through its five and a half minutes. It’s by no means a bad song- very solid, if unspectacular, it’s certainly growing on me every time I hear it.
Pushing the Tides was the first song I heard from this record. If Teardrinker is the emotional exposition in this story, then Pushing the Tides is the chase sequence.
A balls to the wall, percussive cacophony of an urgent 3/4 beat snare drum sledgehammers while Sanders terrifyingly snarls out lyrics that sound like they are grabbing your ankles as you struggle to escape. As mentioned earlier, drummer Dailor has been showing his vocal range intermittently yet increasingly throughout their career. Here, his chorus and tempo change combined with the bands collective ascending riffs are simply devastating- developing the remorseful, lingering tones of Roots Remain from their last record into a choral hook that just soars.
On Emperor of Sand, the drummer talked about his “less is more” approach and it’s used to glorious effect here. After my first thoughts about referencing King Canute, lyrically it wrestles with the pressure of not being sucked in to the negative emotions that grief can cause.
Teardrinker and Pushing the Tides back to back maturely demonstrate the band’s ability to balance melancholy and aggression in equal measure.
Peace and Tranquillity starts off as anything but. A spiky, confrontational, whirlwind of disjointed guitars before hitting a neat, tight groove with a little bit of Tool like interplay and another swirling Brann chorus.
Brent Hinds and understated mastermind Bill Kelliher really showing their dexterity and connection here. It’s chaos and shouldn’t work, but perfectly represents the uncontrollable frustration and lack of understanding that loss can bring. But we’re not done yet. A stomping, swaggering riff and intricate lick groove dips and out, with Sanders once more rounding things out.
Dagger is a pulsating, booming experience, with tribal drums genuinely sounding like the end of days. Reaching the summit once again just before another night fall.
Sanders howling “The price we pay to know you” as hypnotic middle eastern instrumentation float around like circling vultures creates a tangible atmosphere of dread.
Had it all – slow rumbling drums with glimmering effects and an acoustic main riff makes this another slow, reflective account of fallen comrades. Sentimental, aching, lingering vocals lead into an increasingly unnerving guitar solo and another Tool- like riff progression.
Savage Lands live up to its name. A frantically paced yet incredibly satisfying groove and ugly, Leviathan like riff progression. The three vocalists trade painfully impactful blows.
“Push through the pain/ developing calloused hands/ to dig and scrape and claw”
Gobblers of Dregs, possibly my favorite song title of theirs since “The Octopus has no Friends” is a multi headed creature of gloomy riffs and sci fi effects. Another slow, atmospheric song, stomping into familiar chorus hook/ growling verse structure.
“Waiting for the sun to rise
so I can say my last goodbye”
The high hat shuffle returns before Dailor delivers typically epic fills and impeccably labyrinthine grooves.
The album’s last two tracks keep things pretty low key. Eyes of Serpents has an innocent, brittle opening bursting into flange and crawling into another beautiful yet aching chorus hook. There’s also a couple of minutes for driving chugging riffs accompanied by a haunting choir and wailing solos. I love the imagery the lyrics create- going back to Blood Mountains adventurous mysticism.
Gigantium finishes off the record. A huge, grand ending. Rich with euphoric optimism, escalating harmony, and a real sense of acceptance, if not closure. After two decades of harsh environments and perilous traversal, (em)bracing fire, water, space, or sand, this feels like flailing a flaming torch that roared in the caves of darkness, staggering out with the remaining glowing embers just surviving long enough to become a campfire as the new sun rises.
“I just need you to whisper/ Tell me all is well”
For the longest time each member has suffered individually while relying upon the support of his band mates. With Hushed and Grim, they are bonded by grief yet creatively forged and fused together to collectively remember, celebrate and mourn someone who clearly meant the world to them. Because of that, the chemistry between the four of them combined with the unenviable journey of again accepting and realizing mortality make this album the stunning culmination of respecting what’s gone before or as well as opening another chapter in their evolution.
It’s difficult dealing with the complex emotions and memories of absent friends. The battles fought are hard to comprehend, just as the cruel circumstances upon which they were taken, but their spirits will live on.
It doesn’t hit the relentless, bludgeoning assault of something like Remissions Mother Puncher, nor does it simmer too much like The Sparrow, or A Cold Dark Place. What it achieves is something rivetingly layered and complex. Braving the elements, wrestling with the anxiety of claustrophobia to the grandeur of fighting colossal foes, both mythical and emotional, they are able to harness the growls and rising choruses of past glories like Crack the skye’s epic title track with the polish and accuracy of “Emperor” to allow Hushed and Grim to carve out its own hostile yet often tranquil place in the bands vast and varied landscape.
Sanders and Dailor may take the majority of the vocal duties here, but make no mistake, this is a collective and collaborative album from front to back. It continues to astonish me how synchronized and cohesive these four musicians are, sporadic and wild but comfortingly confounding, concocting ambitious, multi faceted soundscapes, intense double helixing riffs with pummeling yet unfathomably tight grooves and so much lurking under the surface.
If Remission was jagged flint, then Hushed and Grim is a finely crafted marble mural. Still hard, still heavy but also beautiful and sprawling.
If Leviathan or Blood Mountain were the band flexing their muscles and proving their worth, then this is them pragmatically yet defiantly continuing to find inner strength.
Mastodon have managed the seemingly impossible- to add to their already seismic (both sonic and physical) discography without retreading too much familiar ground and ultimately letting the raw emotion grow and breathe when it needs to.
From pretentious to derogatory, the labels or genres that have been thrown at Mastodon are something of a disservice. Whether brutal or serene, they’ve always managed to produce a chemistry as musicians and transcended merely hooks, riffs, solos and vocals. With everything that’s come before it, Hushed and Grim may not be completely what fans wanted, but personally, it’s the next logical place on the map, the rustic, spiritual successor to Crack the Skye and, honestly, the album that I need right now.
Pushing the Tides
More than I could chew
Eyes of Serpents