Overall Score: 7/10 Emotional Depth: 9/10 Musicianship: 8/10 Concision: 6/10 Pros: Mastodon's souls laid bare in a stunning ode to their departed manager and friend Cons: Feels as though some ideas are overwrought, detracting from the record's overall enjoyability
“I turn the grief to medicine”. For so many artists, pain is the lynchpin of creating works that will stand the test of time. The aim is sometimes resonance, be it with individuals or large swathes of audience members, but more often it is a cathartic expression for the creator(s) alone. There’s debate as to the longevity of this approach. Should artists have to suffer to create great art? It certainly shouldn’t be a prerequisite, but in reality creatives play with the hand they are dealt.
Mastodon have endured more than their fair share of emotional blows over their now twenty-one year career. At the age of fourteen, percussionist/vocalist Brann Dailor’s sister took her own life. This tragedy became the inspiration for the title of track of 2009’s magnum opus, Crack the Skye, with the lyric “please tell Lucifer he can’t have this one/Her spirit’s too strong” serving as the desperate plea from those left behind for mercy for the departed. During the recording of 2011’s The Hunter, guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds’ brother was killed in a hunting accident. The record’s title is an ode to another life lost in Mastodon’s world, and on the title track bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders breathes out the lyric “Letting go, your spirit flies”. 2017’s Emperor of Sand, to this point the most recent LP from the Atlantan quartet, was inspired by the experiences of those surrounding the band who had been diagnosed with cancer. The desert, a metaphor for the struggle in searching for meaning and absolution in the face of death, impending or otherwise, was ironically fertile ground for Mastodon to release their finest and most poignant work since the aforementioned Crack the Skye. In 2018 following a battle with pancreatic cancer, Nick John, the band’s long-time manager, confidant and above all, friend, passed away. This provided the conceptual grounding for their latest record, their first double album; Hushed and Grim, yet another excursion into the underworld as the band grapple with the inevitability of passing.
As a thundering drum roll ekes over the horizon, it is striking but not unsurprising that Mastodon maintain their penchant for stellar opening tracks. Pain With An Anchor stands side by side with The Wolf is Loose, Sultan’s Curse and indeed, Blood and Thunder as a phenomenal scene setter, introducing the feel of the latest journey the foursome will take the listener on. However it is apparent from the opening washes of guitar before Dailor’s desperate voice bursts forth that this is not Mastodon as we know them. They have produced bleak works before, mainly through title tracks and moments of vulnerability spread throughout albums, but never before have they presented the audience with such a melancholy opening salvo.
There’s an immediate air that this is not going to be Mastodon raging against the spectre of death that seems to follow them so doggedly, but instead an acceptance of the finite nature of mortality. Mastodon are no longer proverbial Crusher Destroyers, but instead a more considered and weathered act than when we last heard them. Even as the heavy sludge of their earlier works rears its head at the song’s climax, there is a lack of swivel-eyed fire and absurdism that often defined their earlier works. This is a monochrome record, filled with the shades of despondent grey that one feels when faced with loss.
The heaving southern rock of The Beast does not inspire any optimism as Dailor, Sanders and Hinds trade pained lamentations of their fallen partner with desperation in their voices. As the album moves into Skeleton of Splendor, it feels as though this is an act struggling to find any closure, as the wailing mellotron synthesisers that see the track’s denouement – and that of single, Teardrinker – reach a crescendo of despair. But that’s where things change.
As a double album, Hushed and Grim doesn’t feel entirely cohesive. Moving from Teardrinker into lead single, Pushing the Tides, as album A absolutely gives way to album B, is a whiplash inducing experience. The mournful dirges seem to give way to a triumphant yet angry look at the effect John’s death had on the band. “Pushing the tides/Trying not to go down and taken under […] Trying to keep my head above the water”. Perhaps this is Mastodon giving the stages of grief a soundtrack as they quickly pivot from sorrow for their friend’s passing to concern for their own wellbeing in the wake of tragedy. Between denial, despair and anger it appears that to this point they are quite sublimely covering the mental hurdles that they must navigate in order to find closure. However, following Pushing the Tides, the album begins to slowly cycle back to the naked vulnerability of album A, at least musically.
The beginning of the second half of Hushed and Grim is undeniably more conventionally heavy; distortion is more apparent and the music becomes more esoteric and impenetrable. Where the opening seven tracks felt like a valiant forging ahead into new territories for Mastodon while also harking back to the more tender musicianship of tracks like The Hunter and The Sparrow from 2011’s effort, the album’s middle section introduces the abstract oddness and the challenging instrumentation of 2006’s Blood Mountain and 09’s Crack the Skye. Peace and Tranquility and Dagger have the lysergic energy of Blood Mountain’s latter half as they twist through spidery riffs and off-kilter weirdness. It begins to resemble a Mastodon fans may be more familiar with. Come Had It All however, the mood drifts back to the solemnity of Hushed and Grim’s opening gambit. In this respect, Hushed… is a cyclical adventure, taking us back around to the starting point, perhaps presuming that the cycle of grief will never be absent in Mastodon’s lives, but in practice it is only partly satisfying. On the one hand it’s a savvy exploration of the repetitive and inescapable effect of loss, emotions come and go in waves but rarely settle into a fixed or predictable state. On the other it leaves the record feeling somewhat disjointed for its midsection. The variety and dynamism is admirable and shows a band unafraid to experiment with form and feeling, but it just feels slightly confused and as if there was an attempt to cram too much in.
Double albums are a tricky business. You can probably count on one hand the examples that justify their run time and feel as streamlined as a “normal” length LP. Hushed and Grim certainly never feels a slog. It carries itself proudly and with the requisite amount of gravitas and consideration given its subject matter for the entire eighty-eight-or-so minutes, however it does feel as though some more judicious editing would have benefitted the end product. There are no dud tracks to speak of, but bar the to-the-point Pushing the Tides, every track is five minutes or more. It’s not that Mastodon don’t have enough ideas to carry such a monumental task as a double album or a heartfelt ode to Nick John, but here it feels as though some motifs and passages outstay their welcome and are explored for just a touch too long. It never feels unfocused as such, but longer instrumental passages so bleak as these begin to stray dangerously close to meandering self-indulgence. You can’t reprimand the quartet too harshly for this; the album is a stark laying bare of their souls and their coping mechanisms, but is it utterly mesmerising and satisfying in its entirety? The answer, sadly, is no.
In a 2014 interview with Loudwire, Sanders said of Mastodon “A lot of times for me personally, just having the metal tag itself seems kind of limiting on us because we have such an appreciation for all styles of music and we like to incorporate bits and pieces of those into our songs.” Hushed and Grim if nothing else is a bold statement from Mastodon and perhaps their most eclectic work to date. There are the thunderous crashes of ire carried through the kind of sludge riffs with which they first burst into the public consciousness juxtaposed with the outlaw lamentations and progressive tendencies that came to define the latter half of their career. There are plenty of wonderful, dexterous musical and lyrical ideas here, all swimming in deeply personal trauma, but some of them do feel over-egged and overplayed. There’s no denying the passion that went into the creation of this record. Mastodon can stand proud in knowing they have nourished their own spirits – one would hope – in this send off to Nick John, and it shows that they can maintain their place in the pantheon of rock music’s great artists. Is it perfect? Far from it, but it does show a more naked beast than we have been privy to at this point, so in that respect it is Mastodon’s bravest album. It just isn’t their best.
Mastodon’s Hushed And Grim is released October 29th via Reprise Records.