Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Mastodon - The Hunter [9/10]

There are a few handfuls of bands within the modern metal stratosphere that dedicate their careers to rising above the wash of lowest-common-denominator music that floods our scene seemingly with endless abandon and absolutely zero concern for the evolution and forward movement of our music that was once upon a time, believe it or not, genuinely praised. For every Tool, there is a million Emmure’s - for every Deftones, there is a million Asking Alexandria’s – for every Opeth, there is a million Five Finger Death Punch’s. But if there’s one band to emerge in the past 15 years that have so unashamedly set themselves apart from anything remotely resembling a pack, and have stubbornly pushed through hoards of average music to become one of the most revered, influential and, in all honesty, SUPRISINGLY successful metal bands of recent times, it is Mastodon. Does it seem conceivable to you at all that a band whose first four albums each respectively represented one of the four elements per album (earth, water, fire, air) would be signed to as major a label as Warner Bros.? Does it not seem a tad odd that a band whose last album revolved around a concept which includes a paraplegic, astral projection and Rasputin would be playing massive slots at major festivals? It’s for reasons such as this that Mastodon deserve all of your respect. They have handled every aspect of their career exactly as they have intended to and have never once pandered to the industry, their fans or even each other. Such is the reason why The Hunter breaks their concept album trend, and the change has clearly been a welcome one. The diversity on show throughout this record is at once both striking and instantly laudable and, as is customary with Mastodon by this point, it holds its fair share of surprises and curveballs, effortlessly tossed in with that signature omnipresent Mastodon sound. Let’s read on, skids.

If you have a soul, you’ll have heard ‘Black Tongue’ by now, and it’s everything you want as an introduction to new Mastodon – a catchy Brent Hinds riff, the patented Brann Dailor groove, and utterly demonic Troy Sanders vocals. The aforementioned diversity comes into play early with the ZZ Top swing of ‘Curl Of The Burl’, an absolute tour de force for Brent Hinds, and the almost (dare I say it) happy-sounding ‘Blasteroid’. Don’t let that put you off – even in their “nicest” moments Mastodon have always managed to be criminally heavy, and there’s absolutely zero change here. ‘Stargasm’ slows the pace down considerably as it veers into subtle Crack The Skye territory, before taking a visit to the Leviathan era on ‘Octopus Has No Friends’ and back to Blood Mountain on ‘All The Heavy Lifting’. I make a point to reference these albums for only one reason – The Hunter is the bastard child of all of their previous efforts. Without repeating themselves or even full on plagiarising themselves, they’ve managed to take the essence of what made each of their past albums great (and in most cases some of the best metal albums of the past ten years) and fuse them together while at the same time giving The Hunter its own unique flavour. It makes for a simply spellbinding listen, as the absolutely breathtaking title track practically hypnotizes you into a sense of false security, before reminding you that this is Mastodon you’re listening to. For fuck’s sake – whatever you do, don’t get too comfortable, because ‘Dry Bone Valley’ and ‘Thickening’ are absolute masterclasses in psychedelic metal, constantly switching moods and (surely by this point in the album) forcing you to feel like you’re losing your mind. ‘Creature Lives’ hardly helps matters, a tribute to The Creature From The Black Lagoon and the biggest curveball of the album. It is by all means intended as an absolute pisstake, but by Christ, they even do this perfectly (essentially, it’s Mastodon doing a Christmas carol. Seriously). As only Mastodon could get away with, they follow this up with ‘Spectrelight’, a mammoth slab of old-school Mastodon featuring the purely terrifying vocals of Neurosis’ Scott Kelly. Perhaps this album’s biggest strength is its pure schizophrenic nature, skull-crushing Masto-metal and ever so slightly unhinged psychedelia being the most obvious themes, which is why the stunning album closer ‘The Sparrow’ seems to carry so much finality to it. By the time you reach this track (seemingly intended as a distant cousin to the title track), you have already been swept into a tornado of aural brilliance and sheer versatility, and ‘The Sparrow’ acts almost as a comedown after what is surely the most emotional album of Mastodon’s career.

The truth is Mastodon couldn’t get it wrong if they tried. Like The Mars Volta, Devin Townsend and The Dillinger Escape Plan, their focus is sternly on progression, experimentation and, above all else, complete artistic freedom. In a world where bands play it safe and release album after album of average Metallica rip-off’s and/or post-metalcore wankery, they shamelessly liberate themselves of any musical restriction and deliver album after album of bona fide prog metal genius – constantly advancing, creating entirely original sonic landscapes and making a legitimate impact on people’s lives. To slap them with the title of “a thinking man’s band” is frankly ludicrous – everyone in the world could easily find even one little thing to enjoy about Mastodon’s music. It’s just a shame that a music world that values image, popularity and controversy amongst other entirely aesthetic selling points over quality of product all too often leaves bands like Mastodon in the dust. But they keep pushing on, never compromising and never changing their unique vision, and The Hunter is just another step in the right direction. We can only hope that more bands choose to follow their lead, seek to change things, and push to influence. That’s how we got to this point in the first place. Fuck the trend. Long live Mastodon. They’ve bloody done it again.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Machine Head - Unto The Locust [7/10]

There comes a time in any band worth their salt’s lifespan where, presumably after years of endless touring, jamming and a mass of shared life experience, they release an album that so succinctly and unapologetically defines their sound, with that intangible sense of the “stars aligning” to create what will ultimately become the benchmark each respective band is compared against forevermore. As triumphant and indeed infrequent as these moments are, especially in metal, a band enters very dangerous waters when these albums are made. Case in point: The Blackening. You don’t need me to explain how lauded this album was the world over, and still is to this day. It remains Machine Head’s crowning achievement – a near flawless amalgamation of all of their best qualities while simultaneously pushing their sound into uncharted territories. Since word hit the street that Machine Head were holed up in the studio working on the follow up to their modern metal classic, the same question has been practically everywhere: how on earth are they going to top it? They’ve responded with Unto The Locust, their most technically proficient offering to date and unbelievably only their seventh full length in a near 20 year career.

The album opens with the glorious ‘I Am Hell (Sonata in C#)’, a dynamic and ferocious three part anthem, equal parts sing-along, equal parts balls-out-thrash-masterpiece. It is not a traditional opening track in any sense of the word, an eerie multi-tracked acapella intro giving way to one of the chunkiest riffs the band have penned to date and a severely pissed off Robb Flynn. Before you get too comfortable in the swinging groove of this first movement however, you’re flung into full on thrash mode. It’s double kick drums galore as riff after riff passes you by, and the band are on simply fantastic form, taking all of 30 seconds to confirm that this is by a country mile Robb Flynn’s strongest vocal performance to date. Seriously. He’s hitting notes here that he’s never hit before, without losing a single trace of his trademark growl. The song ends with an elegiac variation of the chorus as classical guitars play in simply sublime harmony, before bursting back into life with huge power chords and tremolo picking into a fade out. And this is all in one track. We’re off to a good start, ladles and jellyspoons.

‘Be Still And Know’ fares worse unfortunately, despite boasting an instantly massive chorus and plenty of tossing and turning with the dynamics. The truth is, there are just too many unnecessary parts. Where songs off The Blackening seemed to have just the right dose of everything whether the song was ten or six minutes long, ‘Be Still And Know’ comes off sounding very muddled and pieced together, and very nearly veers the albums momentum completely off course. Lead single ‘Locust’ saves this however, a grower in every sense of the word. The general consensus when an advance mix of this song was released in June was one of disappointment. In truth, this song isn’t as strong as anything from its predecessor, and upon first listen felt a bit of a damp squib compared to ‘Aesthetics Of Hate’ (The Blackening’s lead single). The great news is that the final mix is MILES ahead of the rough treatment we were given in June, and the track truly comes to life within the context of the whole album. The grooves are plentiful, the patented Machine Head harmonics litter the verses, and how powerful is the segue from the pre-chorus into the chorus? Vintage Machine Fucking Head.

‘This Is The End’ roars out of a classical guitar intro (note: I’d be very surprised if it didn’t remind you of Metallica’s “Battery”) into more thrash metal fare, with what is to memory the first blast beat on a Machine Head record ever and a scream-along chorus that is sure to solidify the song as a future live favourite. For all the curiously adolescent aggression that builds the majority of the album, ‘Darkness Within’ has understandably been the big talking point of the album in all of the countless reviews. Machine Head fans will undoubtedly have a love-hate relationship with the track – this is not a traditional Machine Head “ballad” ala ‘Descend The Shades Of Night’ or even ‘Now I Lay Thee Down’. Granted, structure-wise and even musically it is strikingly similar to these songs and many more before it, but there’s something untraceable in its overall tone that sets it apart from anything the band have done before. Flynn seems to be in a constant duality with himself as he sings of depression and his apparent disconnection with religion, only to then sing of his undying love for music and how he views it as his “saviour”. As far as metal goes, this is a seldom visited subject. How many metal bands can you name that actually take a break from the almost essential misery and despair that are absolutely paramount to metal, to simply sing about their love for music? It’s a bold move, and Flynn and co. should be applauded for showcasing their vulnerability, even as an established band with absolutely nothing to prove. ‘Pearls Before The Swine’ suffers a similar fate to ‘Be Still And Know’ before it, having all the pieces and elements to make it work but a complete disregard for arrangement and a horribly weak chorus letting it down. It’s a damn shame, but it’s up to the dramatic and at times full on cheesy ‘Who We Are’ to send us off on a high note. While musically it is at times very efficient, and judging by the outro there’s absolutely no other way they could’ve ended the album, the way in which each part transitions into each other is not nearly as smooth as anything off The Blackening, or even Burn My Eyes. It is, again, a damn shame, as so many pieces of this song are absolutely sterling and a simple tweaking of the arrangement could have easily shot this into the pantheon of Machine Head’s best loved tracks. Nonetheless, the aforementioned outro is anything if not beautiful, and is a fitting climax to this most confusing of albums.

It seems that there really was no way Machine Head were ever going to follow up The Blackening. Unto The Locust is their Return Of The Jedi to Star Wars’ The Empire Strikes Back, their Rise Of The Machines to The Terminator’s Judgment Day, their The Godfather III to The Godfather II (at least it’s not Joey to Friends, if that’s any consolation). There are so many albums, films, books, or any form of art, that are crippled under the weight of expectation brought on by previous works. It’s happened to the best of artists, and it’s seemingly unavoidable. But that’s not to say that Unto The Locust is a bad album by any stretch of the imagination. Thousands of bands would kill to have this as their debut album, such is the quality of much of the album, not to mention the excellent production job with Flynn himself at the helm. But this band have proved on more than one occasion that they’re capable of so much more. Whether they’ve stopped to smell the roses off the back of The Blackening’s success for too long or they’ve simply reached their unbeatable peak is beyond you or me, but you have to wonder how songwriters of this calibre didn’t notice that this latest batch is hardly up to scratch when compared with past efforts. With any luck, this is just a dent in a hopefully very long road. All’s we can do is accept the album for what it is – a solid collection of often questionable songs -, go and see the band as they tear the roof off UK arenas with Bring Me The Horizon, DevilDriver and Darkest Hour later this year in their first headlining UK arena tour, and keep our fingers crossed that they’ll be back up to par for their next offering. Machine Head are one of the biggest metal bands in the world this side of Metallica, and with good reason. To give up on them now would be, frankly, stupid. Fingers crossed, always.