Mastodon's 'Hushed and Grim' Is the Grandest Realization of Their Artistry
Published Oct 27, 2021Four years ago, Emperor of Sand proved that a streamlined Mastodon doesn't result in a worse Mastodon. This might not be the same Atlanta sludge metal quartet that wrote "March of the Fire Ants," but their embrace of arena-ready hard rock found praise from metal tastemakers and mainstream critics alike.
The secret? Authenticity. Whether it's prog/sludge concept albums, or anthems ripe for WWE entrances, Mastodon have remained true to a unique vision. This vision remains intact as they drop an 80-minute double album. Hushed and Grim lives up to its name, embracing Mastodon's past and future with dark aggression and soulful meditation.
Mastodon reinstate their unique chemistry right off the bat with opener "Pain With an Anchor." Brann Dailor's dexterous drum fills careen into Brent Hinds' winding guitar leads, as the band's four-vocalist attack stacks rich melodies against some nostalgically punishing riffs. The same goes for the bombastic rhythm changes of "The Crux," as Mastodon build a bastion of exhilarating, transfixing dynamics. It's prime Mastodon, from Bill Kelliher's chunky guitar tone to bassist Troy Sanders' balance of harmony and groove.
While Mastodon could have written a double album full of skull-caving violence, contrasting the singles "Teardrinker" and "Pushing the Tides" reveals the dualistic nature of Hushed and Grim. The latter comes through with the dissonant, syncopated nastiness, while the former eases off the throttle for a mid-tempo lamentation. In both cases, the band's songwriting chops become the star of the show. Hearing Sanders and Hinds trade solos over the lackadaisical, hooky "Teardrinker" hints at a successful divergence from rip-roaring riff-a-minute onslaughts like "Pushing the Tides."
Where Emperor of Sand drifted dangerously close to butt rock, the hushed parts of Hushed and Grim contain some lofty heights of their own. In fact, the sprawling, passionate balladry of "Had It All" is Mastodon's most heartfelt number to date, contextualizing their perspective following the loss of their manager and close friend Nick John. And yet, it's easy to zone out to the repetitious motifs of "Skeleton of Splendor." It's during these monolithic dirges that Mastodon's atmosphere and melody crosses into kaleidoscopic spiritualism. Even the volcanic, almost noisy solo work of both tracks complements a palpable sense of magnitude.
Contrasts aside, these 80 minutes pass by smoothly, because Mastodon still worship at the altar of mighty riff. Yes, "Sickle and Peace" is in a 7/8 time signature, but it's barely noticeable thanks to Dailor's impeccable groove and Hinds' infectious licks. On top of that, it seems these guys have only grown more comfortable with harmonizing their respective voices over such involved arrangements. The ominous, melodious interlude of "More Than I Could Chew" takes nothing from its crushing weight, instead gearing it up for a rapturous convulsion of explosive chords and soaring vocals.
Mastodon also avoid prog-metal's indulgent riff salad trope by writing catchy songs first, and embellishing them to complement rather than to bedazzle. The sensual half-time shuffle and resonant strains of "The Beast" don't demand attention, providing gloomy shades of blues-rock to accompany haunting falsetto vocals. This layered approach allows shreddier parts like the intro of "Peace and Tranquility" to pop more, while also fleshing out Mastodon's versatility as they cycle through distinct, memorable doses of emotive riff mongering. It doesn't simply sound impressive… It feels awesome.
Granted, elevating sludgy riffs with stellar musicianship isn't a new concept for this band. What makes deep cuts like "Savage Lands" stand out in Mastodon's discography boils down to a willingness to settle in on ideas worth marinating in, be it galloping thrash steez or a foreboding doom-laden solo section. This would explain why the synth-heavy psychedelic trip "Dagger" feels so natural. Though it lacks an overt structure, the track remains transfixing in its churning ocean of rumbling tom-toms, chilling sound effects and droning modulations. These moments also spotlight this thing's clean, yet earthy production, courtesy of David Bottrill (his work with Tool comes to mind, as far as immersive vibes and tasteful chops).
Even when Mastodon burn slowly and dimly, the whacking percussion and thick distortion of "Gobblers of Dregs" hit like a gut punch. Even so, the band know exactly when to break the tension with a jammy crescendo — a sentiment shared by "Eyes of Serpents." Mastodon constantly find ways to recontextualize riffs, push technical chops and augment nuanced beats, all the while maintaining a potent throughline of empathy amid the fervor.
The appropriately-named "Gigantium" closes this massive journey with anthemic glory — the final realization of Mastodon's foray into rafter-shaking power balladry. The song just keeps getting louder, even after the rapturous guitar solo! It's not at all what anyone could have expected back in 2000, but controlled, tactful dynamics allow Hushed and Grim to succeed at both brutality and accessibility. Mastodon have crafted the fullest realization of their artistry, revelling in primal, visionary euphoria. (Reprise)