Mastodon – Once More ‘Round the Sun

I’ve always liked Mastodon – or at least the idea of Mastodon. Somebody needs to represent Atlanta metal, and it seems they’re the ones. I regularly see those guys in the clubs – and not just at metal shows, either. (I spotted members of Mastodon at Television and Devo shows, fer ex.) Atlanta has a ton of bands and a huge music scene – but Atlanta’s “big” rock bands are few and far between. (So, what are Atlanta’s “big” bands? The Black Crowes maybe? The Georgia Satellites? Drivin’ N Cryin’? The Atlanta Rhythm Section? Let’s face it – these are our big guns and they’re not exactly the stuff of legend.) Right now Mastodon is Atlanta’s “big” rock band, I guess. The band reliably serves as a longstanding emissary of Atlanta metal, and that’s cool.

But musically, Mastodon has never really clicked for me. How do I put this? They’re too good. Too good if “good” means excessive virtuosity and overwrought concepts. Mastodon’s too-long songs sound pretty good at first – but after a while what first seems challenging becomes, well, a bit boring.

Mastodon has been on the cusp of a commercial breakthrough for almost ten years. The albums Crack the Skye and The Hunter were both ambitious, boundary-stretching affairs. In fact, the aforementioned albums were probably a little bit too ambitious. The unfortunate coupling of musical virtuosity, lyrical hubris and a few too many bong hits yielded a terrifying thing, prog rock. Sorry, but prog rock sucks.

Both albums were burdened by confusing conceptual conceits. They were, like, telling these giant science fiction stories about ancient warlords and priests and the time/space continuum and interdimensional shape-shifting and a quest for ancient knowledge, dude – throwing in crazy time signatures, tribal drumming, didgeridoos, gongs, kazoos and a grab-bag of odd instruments to take the listener on a, ahem, “musical journey.” Yeah, there were a couple of good riffs on those albums, too – but not nearly enough of them.

Thankfully, Once More ‘Round The Sun is a lot more focused. The songs are simpler and shorter. There is no grand narrative. What we have here is a bunch of songs that stand on their own. And the rock factor is, finally, solidly there. The songs are simple enough – with melodies and catchy riffs that the listener can latch onto.

So, will the streamlined, more radio-friendly version of Mastodon reap that long-sought commercial breakthrough? Well, probably not.

The planets will probably never align for Mastodon in the same way that they did for Metallica in 1992 for the following reasons: 1.) we are now in a permanent state of digitally bolstered generic stratification where mass media is a thing of the past – supplanted by a milieu of media immersion where everybody gets content to fit their own demographic.. Without mass media, massive success is impossible. And 2.) Mastodon hasn’t purposely Def Leppardized its sound like those whores in Metallica did on the Black Album.

Once More ‘Round The Sun is memorable and rocking – and it’s adventurous enough without being overwrought. Mastodon is a permanent metal institution with a solid, global fan base. Mastodon is now making music that lots of people – well, enough of ‘em – can like. Atlanta has a “big” band that plays actual rock ’n’ roll. And this is enough.

Once More ‘Round The Sun