When you’re years into following a band, eventually you plateau, right? Probably not the best example, but it’s like a bell curve – you have high-end stuff, and you’ve got low-end stuff, and it’s all balanced out, averaged to somewhere in the middle where your expectations now land. You know a band is capable of otherworldly output, but you’ve also seen them release some stuff that wasn’t even necessarily bad, you just weren’t into it. That’s me with Mastodon at this point.
Ever since my friend showed me Leviathan 14 years ago and blasted “Blood and Thunder” in his then 30-year-old Volvo station wagon as we blitzed around the suburban streets of our city, I’ve been following the Altanta metal band from album to album, for better or worse. I played “Colony of Birchmen” on Rock Band 2 enthusiastically, even though there were better tracks on Blood Mountain (fuuuuuuuuck yeah, “Crystal Skull”). I rabidly took in Crack the Skye, which is one of my favorite prog metal albums ever, meandered through The Hunter, raised one (not two) curious and intrigued eyebrow at Once More ‘Round the Sun, and said ‘close but no cigar‘ at Emperor of Sand. With Hushed and Grim, I am finding my relationship with Mastodon further complicated. Bear with me as I talk it through in a broader sense than I think one would expect in an album review.
Just to clarify up front, each and every album Mastodon have put out has brought with it some rippers, slammers, and jammers. Even with their albums I consider the worst (The Hunter and ‘Round the Sun if it wasn’t obvious), there was something well worth your time that called back to the energy once harnessed in their sludged-up, craggy take on modern metal or their short-lived, progged-out juncture. Hushed and Grim is no different by any means, but there’s a new problem I have. While we have an album’s worth of good-to-great Mastodon music here, we also have another album’s worth of material that makes the former good stuff feel lost in the shuffle.
15 songs and 116 minutes is immense by any standard, but especially for Mastodon. All of their albums sit very firmly around the 50-minute mark and, as I alluded to before, these albums have run the gamut from genre-defining masterpieces to labored, mediocre excursions without a cohesive spirit. So to extend that runtime out is to put this album at great risk for, ironically, falling short. What also hurts is that almost all of these songs are anywhere from five to six minutes long, with only two songs breaking free for a four-minute and eight-minute number, respectively. The lack of variation really hurts.
The thing is that there’s some really good stuff here. “Sickle and Peace” and “More Than I Could Chew” are earworms of drive and heavy riffs, but also keen on the atmosphere. They’re both songs with prominent Brann Dailor vocals, and I’ve always said that having him sing was one of the best things Mastodon did in their career, and he just keeps getting better. “The Beast” is a neat track with a bluesy feel, and that’s by design – it features Marcus King, a young blues/Southern rock guitarist who really adds a flair that the band usually just flirts with. Brent Hinds shines here with the lion’s share of the vocals. “Teardrinker” is single Mastodon in full effect with a more conventional structure and approach, but so much better than most of their singles in the last several years. Now that I think about it, the first half of this album really brings the heat in a decent variety of ways.
By the time you finish “Pushing the Tides” (another solid track elevated by Dailor’s vocals on the hook) and cross firmly over into the second half, it’s where attention, and even raw interest, starts to wane. I honestly can’t tell if this second half suffers more because of less memorable writing and approach, or if I’ve just had my fill by this point that it spoils the rest. It’s like eating a rich dessert: your first few bites may be blissful, but pleasure soon turns sour as you get your fill and are almost repulsed by the thought of eating more. Gun to head, I probably couldn’t tell you anything I remember about “Savage Lands” or “Eyes of Serpents”.
There are exceptions though, like the Carcass-esque guitar intro to “Peace and Tranquility” that sticks in my mind. I think the biggest song on here isn’t their heaviest, fastest, or proggiest – it’s “Had It All”, a ballad tribute to Nick John, the band’s former manager who passed away in September of 2018 from pancreatic cancer. It’s remarkably, surprisingly touching, from the lyrics to the inclusion of Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil – who kills the solo on here – as they were one of Nick’s favorite bands. It took a couple listens for it to sink in, as we just don’t hear this particular sound from Mastodon, but it’s heartfelt and different. The previous song “Dagger” also handles this particular kind of grief in a way that’s more traditional for the band, while incorporating some oddities like a sarangi and a tribal feel on percussion.
Much of Hushed and Grim carries that sort of weight to it in one way or another. If there’s a cohesive theme with this album, it’s death, passing, or facing the unknown, with a hint of forlornness; fitting for the band who have been through more than their fair share of personal tragedy and strife in the last few years. It feels like it matured them in certain ways, but they still kept some fire within them to fuel some heavy-hitting stuff and dig deep to bear more of their hearts in a way not seen since Crack the Skye. This is why it’s such a shame to be critical of work like this and feel like I just can’t digest all of it.
I want you think about something with me. You know how we all would like our favorite bands to stay the way they were when they dropped their best album(s), or when we felt their music mattered to us the most to try to recapture that magic? That’s a very weird sense of entitlement, but I think it’s one we all feel to some degree. I wish I could get another Good Apollo, Vol. 2 out of Coheed and Cambria, I yearn for a new take on Silence Yourself from Savages, and, yes, I do in fact miss the old Kanye from time to time. But it’s just not gonna happen. I think it’s been a treat to watch my favorite bands and artists grow in newer directions (well… mostly), capturing new fans from going more mainstream who will hopefully dig deeper and see why I loved the band, but sometimes that’s also a sign to lay them to rest and cherish the memories you have. I’m not saying I’m doing that with Mastodon yet, but I’m also reserving the possibility of it.
Goddamn, this was a long review. This was a long album! This is the Gods and Generals of prog metal albums. Never mind, that’s a washed reference – this is the The Irishman of prog metal albums. That movie is nine minutes longer than Gods and Generals! Now I’m just being weird and hyperbolic, but I do so in a playful way because I still do love Mastodon and likely always will, even if I don’t walk hand-in-hand with what they do now or in the future. They were a pretty formative band when I was delving into heavy music more, it’s just… complicated now. I don’t get as excited as I used to, and I know better now than to place expectations on a band that have clearly moved on from where I think or feel they should be. The foursome still has admirable talent, stories to tell, and for now I’ll be here to listen. Hushed and Grim is elephantine – mastodonian in fact – but big albums need love too, and there’s a lot to love here if you can separate the wheat from the chaff.