Thursday 18 November 2021

Mastodon - Hushed and Grim (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Oct 2021
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The new Mastodon, their eighth studio album, was recommended to me by a friend, but it's a hard one to review for a few reasons. One is that it's really long at almost an hour and a half, so it's not easy to step back from it far enough to see the big picture. Like Godzilla, it's just too big to fit into the frame and we only see parts of it at any time. However, none of its fifteen (count 'em) tracks is able to stand out from the crowd to say something small enough for us to grasp and, with twisted irony, that means that each song really serves as the album in miniature.

Just in case that sounds negative (and I guess it is, at least in part), I should underline that I had a good time with this album. There's no doubt that this is accomplished stuff, obviously an intricate work but always an accessible one, and I found myself in the moment at every moment. Even at its crazy extended length, I never found myself bored, the closest I came being the occasional wonder at how it was still playing, given that I started it what felt like a few hours ago. However, all those hours were good ones and I was always engaged with whatever riff was playing, whatever change was being wrought, whatever hook was being exploited.

The catch is that, once it's all said and done, I couldn't even hazard a guess at a favourite track, or a favourite hook or a favourite riff or a favourite anything. Everything blurs together into a really long musical journey that I thoroughly enjoyed without being able to tell you much at all about it. I was there and now I'm here and whatever happened in between was great but it's obscured into a jumble of senses and you kind of have to take that journey yourself.

In fact, that feeling dominates so much that the closest comparison I can give isn't a musical one at all but a train ride. I got exactly the same effect from watching a ten hour Norwegian train ride that took me from somewhere (Trondheim, I think) a long way north into the Arctic Circle. I loved that journey and it spoke to the soul but I can't really you tell anything else about it. There was a lot of snow. Everything was beautiful but moments were more so. It was an experience. That's it. And the same applies here, sans the snow.

And, at this point, I fully realise that I'm on my fifth paragraph and I haven't said anything about the actual music here. I can do that, at least. This is prog rock that's often heavy enough to count as prog metal, continuing Mastodon's development from a sludge metal band, albeit a massively influential one, into something far less limited, more diverse and emphatically more interesting. Much of this sounds modern only because the guitars are frequently heavy, the bass likewise and the drums very active. Yes never did this, we think, and then we realise that Gobblers of Dregs is kind of like a Yes song that Yes merely didn't write or record. Except when it's like Tool.

The more frequent comparisons would be to people like Dream Theater, Opeth and, at odd crucial points, Voivod, none of which should be surprising. I'd say that Pushing the Tides is the most overt song to push that Voivod influence to the foreground, but I'm sure that there are a whole bunch of other nineties influences in there too that I don't know as well. The other song with an element that stands out, even if the song doesn't, is Dagger, because there's instrumentation on that one that goes beyond the usual and the brass or strings that show up occasionally. I had to look this up and found that it's a sarangi, an Indian stringed instrument played with a bow.

And so I find myself in the odd situation of wanting to recommend an album, which is clearly good stuff, without being able to really explain why. There are no singles here, though I did try to listen to songs in isolation and they sound good, albeit with a loneliness that comes from the separation from the other hour plus of music on this album. It really does work best as one long slab of prog rock/metal but don't just set aside an hour and a half because you can't just listen to this once. It grows with repeat listens as we sink into the music. You need a day, at least, and realistically that still won't be enough. I need to listen to this a lot more yet.

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