Mastodon is the most critically and commercially successful metal band of the new century. And make no mistake, they are a “metal” band, no qualifiers or hyphenates needed: There is no “nu-” in Mastodon’s metal, nor is there any “grind-”, “black-” or “-core.” On their sixth album Once More ‘Round the Sun, there isn’t any “prog-” either; the lengthy narratives, high concepts and multipart epics that distinguished them until 2011′s pointedly straightforward The Hunter are gone. Mastodon, in 2014, is as straight-up as popular metal gets. In other words, it’s basically classic rock.
If you’re wired a certain way, that means Sun can be exciting the same way recent Queens of the Stone Age, Black Keys and Foo Fighters albums can be exciting. In a time when metal and mainstream rock are still too fractionalized to compete as pop, Mastodon is a throwback: Ah, they still make ‘em like this.
The cleanly produced, verse-chorus radio-rockers of the The Hunter dominate Sun as well, and though the swinging, low-strung riffs still intimate brawn, Mastodon is flexing show muscle here; “High Road” and “The Motherload” are the sound of a band doing curls for the beach rather than a barroom brawl. In fact, the most notable aspect of Sun is its inability to provoke or offend; imagine Pantera’s Great Southern Trendkill without the conviction, or Load/Reload rid of its alt-rock ambitions and nail polish. Troy Sanders barely even growls or seethes, he’s actually trying to hit high notes now. A vocal coach was almost certainly involved, and yet none of it has the immediate impact of their fellow Atlantans the Coathangers, whose cheerleading coda on “Aunt Lisa” is the only reminder of how weird Mastodon used to be.