Mastodon – Remission

‘Coals under foot, burst into flames…’ 

Given how much of their career Mastodon have spent refining, polishing, smoothing out and mellowing out their sound, it’s pretty jarring going from any of their post-Crack the Skye material to anything they before that album. That said even sticking to their early career, this still sounds wild and unhinged next to the still much more refined Leviathan, say. Remission is the sound of a hungry and ambitious band with a decent amount of experience on their respective instruments, and in many ways is a peak performance in their lengthy career. It’s not quite their best album overall but it easily contains a lot of their best moments, songs, performances, etc. and still stands as a landmark album for both sludge metal and metal as a whole.

At this point in their career, Mastodon played a heavy as hell sludge metal sound that they’d already displayed on their previous material, and they really turn it up a notch here and continue to do their sound justice, with the music being even better crafted and performed and some new ideas being attempted. Remission‘s tracks can be sorted into one of two groups according to their songwriting style – the first consists of generally shorter, more energetic groove/sludge numbers that are essentially a denser, more chaotic and refined version of what was present on their early demos and EPs. The other half meanwhile consists of the longer, more melodic and drawn out progressive/sludge metal numbers with more mellow acoustic/lead-driven sections and sparser vocals. What’s consistent throughout the album though is its production, which sounds amazing. The drum kit sounds thunderous and full, the guitar tone is very dense, thick and big, the overall sound of the album is polished and rich and heavy but not too even as to prevent instruments from bleeding together a bit or sanding the music of its abrasion, and the mix lets everything come through clearly. It’s another obvious step up from their pre-album material which sounded sort of low rent compared to the professional and monstrous presentation here.

There are other elements consistent to both types of song here, one of them being the vocals, which are performed by bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds. The vocals here are perhaps the strongest of any Mastodon album; while they are inherently less varied as little clean singing is utilised here, the beefy hardcore barks throughout the album sound stronger than they would on subsequent albums as vocal wear and tear hadn’t set in yet. They’re commanding, aggressive, rapid-fire and powerful, standing up to the grinding, and crushing heaviness of the instrumentation behind them. And then of course there is the drumming, which is probably the most famous aspect of Mastodon’s earlier career; hearing these songs, it’s easy to see why. Brann’s drumming is absolutely frantic; these songs are machine-gunned with bouts of showboating fills and other assorted flashy techniques and patterns. He doesn’t forget his role as the timekeeper and rhythmic skeleton of the music of course; and that’s perhaps the best thing about his performance. In spite of the technical flair he manages to roll all of his fills into the framework of the music, meaning the drums and guitars never fit together awkwardly as he never throws off the timing of his drumming. Rather than taking away from the music he only adds to the cacophony, dynamics and chaos of the music by interspersing his more restrained moments with fill after fill. For this reason I think it’s incorrect to say Brann has no restraint or taste, as I find his drumming in general to be far more tastefully applied than say, Derek Roddy’s unending blasting or the constant double bass of some power metal drummers.

As stated, the shorter songs here are very dense and somewhat chaotic; they’re not overtly technical, speedy, dissonant or noisy in the way mathcore or grindcore can be but there is still an emphasis on frequent change-ups in the riffs and drums. The aforementioned excellent drumming from Brann is especially notable on these tracks; he really adds a lot to the chaos, flow and tension of these tracks with his flashy yet tasteful performance. The riffs meanwhile are crushingly heavy, groovy, rapid and percussive with just an undercurrent of melody, locking in perfectly with the drums – from the instantaneously memorable grooves of ‘Crusher Destroyer’ and ‘March of the Fire Ants’ (note also the latter’s beautiful melodic break halfway through) to the churning of ‘Where Strides the Behemoth’ to the choppy thrashing of ‘Burning Man’, a great majority of the guitarwork here hits much harder and is much more memorable than what was on their older material. The riffs really anchor and drive these songs forward, ensuring they become and remain some of most memorable and exciting songs of their entire career, as well as the stronger set of songs on the album.

The lengthier tracks here are slower, more patient, droning, atmospheric and progressive – and they’re easily the less exciting breed of song here, even though they are more indicative of their later direction. Whether in isolation or in the context of the album, they’re merely solid as opposed to absolutely stunning; they’re nice enough while on but they definitely drag the momentum of the more energetic songs down once they start. The rhythm section on these songs is a lot more restrained; the riffs are less technical and choppy, being of the more pure and drawn out sludge variety than anything groovy or thrashy. Brann’s drumming is a lot more measured on these songs with fills coming far less frequently and his beats in general being slower to match the slower pacing. They’re still some of the better lengthy songs they’ve written however; with the crushing sludge riffs aided by the big guitar sound driving the songs forward more than anything from Crack the Skye, and the all too sparingly used vocals and technical drumming going with the riffing nicely. Also of note are the more melodic leads and acoustic guitars found in them (this is especially prominent during ‘Elephant Man’.) These elements being worked into songs alongside their sludgy sound is predictive of what would come to fruition on Blood Mountain and are some of the better moments on the album in general. That said, it’s clear from these songs and most of their later albums that restraint is absolutely not what Mastadon are good at; that the best songs here are no holds barred bangers that throw everything at the wall is not a coincidence.

Despite the inconsistent quality and flow of the tracklist, this is still overall a great album and one of the band’s best. The drumming, riffing and vocals are some of the best performances the band would ever churn out, and this still has the best production of any of their albums. The shorter songs are some of their best tracks ever and the longer songs, while weaker, are still pretty good and at least show a band that was willing to try new things and vary up their music. They’re also proof that they needn’t flush the quality of their music down the toilet by trading in uncompromising heaviness for progression and atmosphere, something they would learn on the next two albums and seemingly unlearn in the years following those. All that aside, this is a very good album; a sludge metal classic that should be heard a few times by any metal fan.

Rating: 90%

Mastodon – Crack the Skye

Impressively terrible 

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; even the prog-infused jams of past albums (which were always where the band stumbled a bit) 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. While Mastodon’s clean vocals were never amazing they were 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.

Rating: 20%

Dream Theater – Train of Thought

A trainwreck

Before I begin, I’d like to come clean: I have zero experience with Dream Theater’s music. I’ve never sat through one of their albums prior to the preparation for this review, and I’ve wiped my slate clean of all expectations. I have heard of this album as being heavier than past albums by the band, but that is ultimately meaningless because I don’t know what is deemed as being ‘heavy’ for this band. Aside from this I’ve also heard of the usual critiques of this band – ‘they noodle aimlessly and James LaBrie sounds awful’ says the detractors and ‘they’re progressive and visionary’ says the fans – so I genuinely had no idea what to expect.

Unpacking the performances reveals that Dream Theater had a pretty clear train of thought when writing this album – the words ‘progressive’ and ‘metal’ are quite blatant misnomers, and the character of the riffs and especially the vocals puts me in mind of that breed of alternative/nu-metal that was quite prevalent in the world of rock back in the early to mid ’00s. The idea that this album is in any way heavy is a purely aesthetic observation – the guitars on this album largely play very little of substance, opting instead for hypnotic and repetitive 2 to 3 note fragmented riffs mixed up with the occasional groove and some outright chugs that are about as far removed from any sort of metal as is possible. Any heaviness comes through only in the muddy nu metal guitar tone, as opposed to any quality riffing.

As the album unfolds a clear pattern emerges in the instruments – repetitive and worthless instrumental sections with some really blatant window dressing thrown in. Said dressing can range from very short melodic leads between chugs to short drum solos to lengthy leads. To be fair, no single song contains one very large reservoir of wank, with it being spread fairly evenly throughout – with the exception of ‘Stream of Consciousness’, an 11 minute load of technical masturbation that doesn’t go anywhere. Any technical chops exhibited throughout this album are utterly negated by the incoherent non-arrangement and misdirection of said chops. Even more obvious bouts of compensation come about with the usage of keyboards, which simply follow what the guitars are doing and are never given a chance to soar at all. I suppose the effect was to layer the music and give it an air of grandiosity but it falls flat given the utterly comical and broken nature of what is playing beneath them.

Another one of this album’s annoying characteristics is the tendency towards vocal orientation. There is clear pattern of the redundant faeces being played when James LaBrie keeps quiet being thrown out for a tuneless atmospheric interlude as in ‘As I Am’ or totally boring and uninvolved mechanical chugs that are as redundant as can be, with the rhythm either complementing the vocal line above or, as ‘Honor Thy Father’ demonstrates, deliberately being syncopated to give a quasi-rap cadence to LaBrie’s singing. All of this would be fine if the void left by the instruments could be filled with something compelling but this isn’t the case, given that James appears to have listened to one too many Creed albums. His voice has taken on that slightly gravelly radio-rock tone that is both completely inappropriate given that the music has more in common with nu metal than it does any sort of post-grunge drivel that steeped the airwaves of the time, and grating given that he sounds awful anyway. His voice suffers from that same vaguely tuneless and whiny tone that is common in this style of music, and the similarly anti-melodic vocal lines only compound this problem. The surprisingly hook-y nature of this album (with a lame radio rock hook being shoehorned into every song) makes this problem even worse than it needs to be, along with the needless electronic distortion done to his voice on songs like ‘This Dying Soul’.

The worst thing about this album though is simply that it carries almost no structural intrigue with it at all. The number of times the band will repeat a riff throughout a song is quite astounding. Individual sections of songs are never developed at all, and every monolithic chunk of the song doesn’t flow into the next part. A random atmospheric part will follow a loud hook, which will then be followed by a fit of directionless soloing which leads into another revolting quiet verse. The songs are simply far too long given that they carry so few ideas, and even fewer of quality. Every song rigidly adheres to a distinctly stagnant structure, which is the exact opposite of what progressive metal should be – a series of flowing ideas that are dwelled upon for long enough and developed in said time. This idea that this is somehow an experimental return to form is completely nonsensical. Even though I’ve never heard another album by this outfit I refuse to believe that they ever wrote drivel like this before this album. There is almost nothing of worth here, with any good bits being negated by bad parts and all of it being wrapped up in structures that are simplistic, lazy and overly dogmatic yet completely incoherent. It is simply a tragic misfire of an album that is a waste of everybody’s time.

Rating: 18%

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