Mastodon had a lot of steam to blow off.
Between the death of the band’s longtime manager, Nick John, and the pandemic, it seemed the Atlanta metal veterans would come back big with Hushed and Grim, their first release since 2020 compilation Medium Rarities.
They grabbed an accomplished producer this time around in David Bottrill (Tool, Dream Theater), who does great work (exceptional drum sounds some of the genre’s best).
To be honest and fair, let me start by saying I’m not a big Mastodon fan. Which I say both to insulate myself and protect anyone’s other opinion of the new record.
But they’ve been around for more than two decades, and it shows. They’re great players who can effectively tackle just about any metal sub-genre there is. They’ve just lacked something of other alt-metal greats.
Mastodon isn’t very threatening, relentless, nor do they wear uniforms like Chronus. I don’t hear the catchiness of a Sevendust, nor the pounding dominance of a Tool. Nor do I hear the spine-ripping aggressiveness of a band like Machine Head, or the head-shaking progressiveness of Mars Volta. Or, going back further, the drama of a Queensryche.
But there are components of all of that (except for the uniforms), which Mastodon effectively wraps into a big package this time (86 minutes). These are professional metal musicians. The older one gets, the more one (and I mean I) realizes is a pretty nice compliment.
Hushed & Grim does take some time to get the ears warm, because it really takes off about halfway through. Though opener “Pain With an Anchor” sounds terribly fun to play, as does the dramatic “The Crux,” which shows off drummer Brann Dalor’s skills and requisite alt-metal aspects of aggressiveness, tempo breaks and harmony leads, even if there didn’t seem to be a matching payoff.
The same thing happens at the end of “Sickle & Peace,” which has a refreshing, if not weird, country prog metal vibe until it goes full glory metal and back again. “The Beast” is open, echoey, melodic and vaguely threatening enough to work on the soundtrack for a movie about alien gunfighters.
“Skeleton of Splendor” brings some of the emotional bleakness expected at this point of the band’s career–with a couple of hopeful changes mid-song keeping things fresh. “Teardrinker” steps back a few years, relying on melody and mood for a song that could have come from the early aughts (and is pretty light for the otherwise grim mood on this record).
The record’s first single, “Pushing the Tides,” starts with a hammer riff that levels off into something driving but not too complicated. “Peace and Tranquility” is where things really get interesting, as it finds a pocket and purposefully staggers a bit before regaining its groove and harmony.
I think they found the record’s expected grimness on “Dagger,” which gives way to a more thoughtful and accessible “Had it All,” with big-building overall dynamics pushing out some epic lead playing. “Savage Lands” is just a barn burner, with machine gun drumming and a galloping vibe that’s difficult not to physically react to.
The riff of “Gobblers of Dregs” is a slow dredge to battle through a dark swamp that could’ve been pulled from early Black Sabbath.
“Eyes of Serpents” doesn’t really get interesting until the lead break near the end, though Mastodon ends with something that could’ve been pulled from ’90s radio (unusual, good ’90s radio, to be sure). In fact, “Gigantium” is easily one of the best constructed songs of the bunch, and a great exclamation point on a fascinating record.
Follow music critic Tony Hicks at Twitter.com/TonyBaloney1967.