This album is a travesty. It is well known at this point that Mastodon took their music in a completely different direction on this album; I have no problem with artists changing style, provided they pull it off properly. Nonetheless, albums like this are always risky – while I appreciate that some bands feel that they can’t take a sound any further, or their preferences can change, jumping into a completely new style after spending several years forging a niche in a completely different one rarely works out, as history will demonstrate. Even with this in mind though, it’s surprising that this album manages to be as bad as it is; as it has almost no redeeming qualities. What makes this even more disappointing is that this album follows Blood Mountain, which was honestly Mastodon’s entry into the pantheon of metal’s all-time greats.
On this album the band ditch their ballsy, riff-driven and energetic style of progressive/sludge metal in favour of a psychedelic, atmospheric and noodling approach to progressive rock/metal. There’s nothing inherently wrong with changing styles or this particular sound, but as you may have gathered that doesn’t happen here. The most crippling flaw to the music is a severe lack of focus and a drop in songwriting quality – songs never really reach a satisfying conclusion and dwell on ideas for too long with little development. The music lacks energy and can be very sluggish and plodding, with songs noodling too much and ending right where they began, as well as being too long for how little they manage to do. Songs take a long time to really get going at all, and they feel flat even when they do finally pick up any sort of steam. As a result this album is quite a chore to actively listen to, because it never presents enough ideas to keep you interested and even more damning is that it doesn’t allow the mind to wander in its atmosphere because the instrumentation and song structures are too limited to allow for an atmosphere. It’s too active to fade into the background but too boring to be focused on; unlike the prog-infused jams of past albums which had a lot more going for them in terms of activity, progression, dynamics and performances.
Not only is the music structured and paced in a flat and uninteresting manner, but the performances themselves manage to be completely dull at best and flat out irritating at worst. A common theme with the instrumentation is that it’s boring, with nothing captivating happening outside of the occasional aggressive riff. The music doesn’t really allow for the spastic drumming of old albums but here Brann goes too far the other way – there’s almost nothing to spice up his bare bones, unremarkable performance on this album. None of the riffs strike me as being particularly well written or interesting; certainly none stick in your memory and are nowhere near as aggressive as before, instead they’re utterly anaemic and flat. They occasionally play around with more psychedelic and hypnotic styles of riff which would be interesting if like the rest of the guitar work they weren’t run into the ground.
The most actively annoying element however is the vocal performance; the harsh vocals of their older material are completely gone and instead clean vocals are used throughout. In the past, Mastodon’s clean vocals were basically never used entirely throughout a song and the music was so active that they never became a particularly large part of the music as they weren’t exposed. They also wrote good vocal melodies to make the verses and hooks stick after just a few listens. However on this album, the band don’t manage a single good or memorable vocal melody outside of ‘Quintessence’s hook, which is a problem when the vocals take centre stage and are far more integral to the music at large. With the vocals being this upfront, it also shows just how bad the singing really is – the vocals sound really mushy, weak, whiny, nasally and blown out, almost like a bad impersonation of any number of modern hard rock/post-grunge/alt metal vocalists; Chad Gray comes to mind. As there’s no change-up in vocal style to speak of this becomes a big problem as the album wears on.
This is an awful album. It’s bad on its own terms and a colossal disappointment given what preceded it. The music feels very superficial too – at no point does it ever really develop or do anything of note. You might get some psychedelic noodling here and there but it comes across as though the band is just pandering to a more highbrow audience, and as a result the music reeks of fakery. It feels like the band is trying too hard to be something they’re not, and at the same time aren’t trying hard enough with the music itself. Compared to the hugely fun and energetic albums of old this comes across as tired and dull, and the band sound like they’re phoning it in. I’ll never know what they were really thinking, but given all the talk of wanting to make their music more fun with subsequent albums even they find this boring, and it shows. It’s shallow, annoying, unmemorable and dull, and I hate it.