Mastodon has been compared to Metallica over and over again. In terms of career paths and trajectory, the similarities are many. Both had the raw debut album embraced by the underground. Their sophomore efforts were polished, gaining the attention of critics outside metal. Third and fourth releases pushed the envelope even further toward thematically-heavy, highly complex material. Metallica's fifth album signalled a dramatic change of direction toward a more accessible, mainstream sound, and Mastodon have stated they wanted material that was more "fun". Is The Hunter the first step toward selling out?
For now, I'm going to withhold judgment on that score. But I will say this: Mastodon have put together the catchiest metal record of the year. It seems the Georgians have been listening to some Torche since their last full-length (check out "Blasteroid") and put some serious pop sensibility into the songwriting. The sound is Leviathan/Blood Mountain era (leaning toward the former), so it's interesting to see that decidedly pop songs can be so complex. It's also interesting that even when the stated intent is to get away from complex, difficult-to-play music, it's still firmly progressive.
This is Mastodon at their most accessible, but it's still not "fun" in the way you might think of Van Halen or, for that matter, Katy Perry. It's still pretty dark (see the title track) and heavy (see "Spectrelight"). "Curl of the Burl", which is perhaps my favorite song of the year, illustrates the point perfectly. To deal with subjects such as murder and an unfair/uncaring universe, they use the provincial, whimsical title phrase.
"Curl" is just the tip of the iceberg. Every song on here is catchy. And they hint a bit more at some of their influences, such as Pink Floyd ("The Sparrow") and Steve Miller Band ("Creature Lives").
The Verdict: I don't know where they go from here, and the similarities to Metallica's career arc are starting to scare me. On the other hand, the industry is different now, so I'm not sure there's much motivation for them to "sell out". For now, I'm just going to enjoy the hell out of The Hunter. It's an album of the year contender. I give it 5 out of 5 stars.