Now is the perfect time for Mastodon’s “The Hunter” arrival. This month has been a running log of grunge and ‘90s rock revisits, in addition to the speculation that the Lou Reed and Metallica collaboration album will equal a worst-case scenario. Plus, somehow, Mastodon has spent the last three records as the metal band added to the playlists of people who don’t typically listen to metal.
The Atlanta-based foursome got a bump, in part, from scoring their first film, 2010’s “Jonah Hex,” and spent the last several years touring with more general rock groups like Cursive, Against Me! and Soundgarden as much as they have with Slayer, Metallica and Killswitch Engage. “Blood Mountain” (2006) and “Crack the Skye” (2009) shared the progressive temperaments of King Crimson and the serrated post-punk and -rock of Helmet along with other typically cited influences. But this latest set is the best testament of Mastodon’s expanding, diverse appeal.
“Curl of the Burl” is a good example of this: while it’s not nearly my favorite track on the album overall, it has all the trappings of a mainstream hard rock hit. The band flies into the triumphantly dark “All the Heavy Lifting” with the thrashy encouragement to “Just close your eyes / And pretend everything’s fine” during its enormous chorus – this right before the comparatively tender title track, its vocals ripped from an Ozzy instructional guide.
Textural “Creature Lives” bows with almost a minute-and-a-half of synths and Troy Sanders’ odd laughter before the slow burrrrrrn of Brann Dailor’s rhythm marches us straight into a stadium-sized swamp (imagine a heavy music video with a lot of lens flare). Consider it the big breath before the bloody “Spectrelight,” featuring Scott Kelly of Neurosis; and for more mud, there’s the curiously titled “Bedazzled Fingernails.” Opener “Black Tongue” loudly swims in indulgent guitar riffs while the band is at its most economic on “Blasteroid,” among the most technically difficult and intense tracks on the set.
It's their musical proficiency that makes Mastodon sound like they recorded and edited with surgical tools rather than blunt objects and hacksaws, and “The Hunter” had the added bonus of producer Mike Elizondo, whose terms with pop and hip-hop likely helped with the treatment of the twinkling guitars, organs, doubled vocals and – so help me God – handclaps on this set. There’s room to breathe, and though it lacks some of the tongue-twisting vocabulary, concept and self-reference that the last two albums had, “The Hunter” remains decipherable and intelligent. This, more than any other, would be the best entry point for new fans.