Friday, November 5, 2021

Music Review: Mastodon - Hushed and Grim (2021)

Man, this album is a doozy.  Prog/sludge/psychedelic metal maestros Mastodon are back at long last, with their eighth studio album Hushed and Grim, a double-disc, 86-minute marathon dedicated to their manager Nick John, who passed away from cancer in 2018.  As the title suggests, the album is steeped in melancholy, a cathartic exploration of loss from a band all too familiar with the subject (As you may recall drummer Brann Dailor has written numerous lyrics about his sister Skye who committed suicide at 16, and the band's 2011 album The Hunter was named after guitarist Brent Hinds' deceased brother.).  Mastodon's signature offbeat guitar riffs and Dailor's Buddy Rich-esque percussion are present but more muted than usual; the songs here tend to be driven by emotion and sentiment rather than trying to dazzle you with metal acumen.  The result is a sprawling 15-track opus creating something beautiful out of tragedy.

Early tracks like "Pain with an Anchor," "The Crux," and "More Than I Could Chew" ease the faithful listener in with familiar-sounding Mastodon compositions, Brann and bassist Troy Sanders supplying the vocals (oddly Brent Hinds only sings on two songs).  Things get a bit proggier on the odd-time "Sickle and Peace" (one of Sanders' best-ever vocals) and veer into Southern rock on the jangly "The Beast" (one of Hinds' heartfelt appearances on the mic), before moving into more pensive territory on "Skeleton of Splendor" and "Teardrinker."  The first disc closes with the stripped-down first single "Pushing the Tides," a song chosen for its middle ground status, representing a little of everything on the album.  Disc 1 boasts nary a miss in its eight tracks, its 43 running time cruising by at an incredible clip.  
The second disc, while not as consistently awesome as the first, still includes some of the record's best songs (my two favorites as a matter of fact).  One of them is the opener "Peace and Tranquility," which kicks off with a driving prog-metal riff before settling into a syncopated triplet verse groove over which Brent supplies his signature drawl, and gives way to Dailor's soaring chorus vocal.  The funereal "Dagger" is next, bringing to mind Tool's "Wings for Marie" as Troy wrestles with the idea that Nick is gone ("I cannot bear to believe that you have left this Earth...").  Kim Thayil provides guest lead guitar on the album's straight-up ballad "Had It All," maybe the most purely morose tune, while the raucous "Savage Lands" provides old-school Mastodon fans with a healthy does of ballistic riffing.  The album's longest song "Gobblers of Dregs" runs a full eight minutes of sparse midtempo grooving, and the penultimate track "Eyes of Serpents" is a sorrowful waltz.  But Hushed and Grim's masterstroke is the finale, "Gigantium," essentially a two-parter whose first half has almost a Stone Temple Pilots vibe, Brann and Troy's vocals touchingly conveying a person finally coming to terms with the loss ("It pains me to see you this way/To erase you is what I fear/You're swimming through my head/It keeps you near").  The song's second half is my favorite thing on the whole album, a repeating, harmonic minor (for all you music theory nerds) chord progression with string accompaniment over which Brann sings four short stanzas beginning with the phrase "My love, so strong," and followed by a signature Brent Hinds guitar solo.  This section harkens back to the climax of Leviathan's "Hearts Alive," an epic dirge suitable for welcoming the end of the world.  It's one of those chord progressions you could hear a hundred consecutive times and it wouldn't get old.  All the raw emotion that went into the previous 14 songs comes to a head here, ending the record on the perfect high note and leaving the listener spent.  "Gigantium" is one of Mastodon's greatest tunes.

It's rare for a double-album not to have any throwaways.  Yes a couple of disc two's tracks feel a bit like B-material, and perhaps the album would be served by trimming 10-12 minutes and leaving it a massive single-disc, but that's pretty nitpicky.  Hushed and Grim is a signature achievement from a band whose career has had no shortage of signature achievements.  I need to do some soul-searching to give their catalog a proper ranking, but there's an argument to be made that this is their best album to date.  Mastodon continues to be one of the world's most original metal bands, putting out music that's instantly recognizable as Mastodon, while constantly pushing the boundaries of what constitutes the Mastodon sound.  Listen to this one repeatedly, it warrants three or four spins before you render a verdict.

I give Hushed and Grim ****1/2 out of *****.

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