In the three years since Mastodon released The Hunter, most of it has aged particularly well, withstanding the test of time about as well as their previous four efforts – some of which are nearing masterpiece status by now. Couple that with the band’s unwillingness to stay in one place for too long, and they had quite the challenge ahead when the time came to record album number six, Once More ‘Round the Sun. Fortunately, they’re not quite ready to break their streak of excellent releases just yet.
Prior to this release, it was hard to guess just where the band would go next. While 2009’s Crack the Skye softened a few edges and went full-on prog, The Hunter took a more direct approach, escaping constraints of the metal genre to provide an accessible sound. Once More ‘Round the Sun, as it turns out, actually carries over the accessibility from its predecessor, and re-incorporates the prog elements from the previous record. Whereas The Hunter got its breathing space from a few deliberately slower tracks, this one goes back and forth between moods within the songs, effortlessly switching from relentless to drawn-out, from furious to ethereal. Though it certainly recalls the atmosphere of Crack the Skye, no tracks go over the ten-minute mark – half of them are over five minutes, and the other half are more concise, hitting a sweet spot.
Although the title might suggest a mere “going through the motions” attitude, this LP does anything but. As it progresses through immediate, single-worthy cuts (such as the title-track) and elaborate growers (such as the actual single Chimes at Midnight), it becomes clear that every riff, melody and meticulously complex rhythm carry the same level of passion and gravitas that the five previous efforts did. The biggest change comes from drummer Brann Dailor, who sings with more confidence here than he ever has before, almost overshadowing Brent Hinds and Troy Sanders – his lead vocals on The Motherload are all the proof anyone needs. Since Dailor’s drumming exposes so much of the band’s dynamics and excellent flow, it feels like this is truly his album in some spots.
The overall cohesiveness of Once More ‘Round the Sun is something to admire, but it also makes the less special moments stick out a bit. Asleep In the Deep starts to dim the brilliance of the record a bit, and the following song, Feast Your Eyes, is passable at best. Luckily, the group has a few tricks to avoid staleness, and they spice up otherwise “good” songwriting with things like the seemingly endless closing solo on Halloween, or the absolutely ridiculous cheerleader chant at the end of Aunt Lisa, a courtesy of all-female group The Coathangers. None of that, however, is quite as brilliant as the special feature saved for album closer Diamond in the Witch House: Neurosis lead singer Scott Kelly returns for his fifth cameo with the band, singing a standout track again. This 7-minute epic would’ve been fantastic by any means, but Kelly makes it truly stellar.
Those hoping for Mastodon to pick up the mantle of saviors of metal (or whatever other genre-related mantle) should be disappointed again – and should’ve also learned a lesson five years ago. On one hand, despite the increased accessibility of the music, they haven’t delivered an Enter Sandman to fully crossover into festival-headlining status just yet, and they sure as hell don’t seem interested in making a Black Album. On the other hand, the concept of an insanely complex, entirely heavy Mastodon record was taken as far as it could on 2006’s Blood Mountain, and it remains to be seen if the band will ever find inspiration down that path again – we’re betting that won’t be necessary.
A lot of Once More ‘Round the Sun can fit into the definition of “hard rock”, rather than metal, and although that has very little significance, it shows that the band only cares about their own expectations and no one else’s – which is precisely what keeps them moving forward in the first place. Watching the behind the scenes videos for the album, the members seem like a fun bunch of people, completely unconcerned with saving any “scene”. While still heavy, it finds Mastodon refining their more approachable, progressive side so much that it’s hard to ever miss the sounds of the past (not to mention that their live performances still include material from their entire career). The result, as it has always been, is metal music that’s genuinely fun and compelling to listen to, and makes no compromises getting there.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.