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Metal Champs Mastodon Defend Their Crown on ‘Once More ‘Round the Sun’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: June 24, 2014
Label: Reprise

Album after album, Mastodon set the pace for modern heavy metal. They took pole position fresh out of Atlanta some 14 years ago, and with album number six, Once More ‘Round the Sun, show no signs of giving it up. Theirs is one of the longest-running musical dynasties of the new millennium. Definitely the loudest.

Heavy music is typically a battlefield upon which the uninitiated dare not tread, but Mastodon unify the tribes. Their brand of aggression is brainy, technically dazzling and slightly hallucinogenic — metal for people who don’t listen to metal. At the same time, the band is so balls-out creative — in its zealous riffage, its metaphysical motifs, its visual components — that it energizes even the crustiest headbangers.

“Elegant” isn’t a term usually associated with neck-tatted, acid-eating heshers, but check out the last minute and a half of “Halloween,” a hidden highlight from Once More: Bill Kelliher’s guitar riff versus Brent Hinds’ guitar solo versus Brann Dailor’s double-time drums. The union is perfectly effortless — and freight-train powerful. Mastodon have built a career out of 90-second symphonies like this, inventing fresh ways to push the engine into overdrive with each record.

And that’s just one snippet from one deep cut on an album packed start to finish with some of Mastodon’s best material to date. Opener “Tread Lightly” eases in with a delicate 12-string acoustic before unleashing every ounce of the band’s ferocity. It’s a properly punishing introduction to Once More, an album threaded not by highbrow concept (as was Masto’s wont up until 2012’s The Hunter) but by the will to further elaborate the band’s sound. Second single “Chimes at Midnight” grinds like vintage Mastodon, with vocal duties shifting between Hinds and Sanders, the former Ozzie-esque, the latter pure screamo. First single “High Road” and “The Motherload” vie for best choruses on the album; “The Motherload” wins by virtue of Dailor’s suggestive foreshadowing: “This time/ Things will work out just fine.” Given the dimly lit foreboding that haunts the album, the sentiment is hard to believe.

Mastodon enlisted fellow ATLiens the Coathangers to provide the cheerleader-chant finale of “Aunt Lisa” (“Hey ho! Let’s fucking go!”); the friction between power-thrash and girlish pep reveals the kind of subtle sense of humor the band keeps mostly hidden in its music. In these sing-along moments — not pop but populist — Mastodon reach out to the world at large. While the rest of heavy music’s luminaries follow in their wake, Mastodon’s sound — and their ambition — is bigger than metal.