Mastodon’s meteoric rise is almost ridiculous when you look at the group’s history. I say almost because the band definitely puts out high quality progressive metal, it’s just seems like they became darlings of the rock/metal community instantaneously. By the time Leviathan, the group’s second full length album, came out the band already had massive tours under their belt, high quality music videos, and legions of devoted fans that eagerly bought up the band’s subsequent albums as soon as they dropped.
For the uninitiated, Mastodon play a variety of sludge metal – metal with heavily distorted and downtuned guitars, alternating tempos, and screamed and/or sung vocals – that also embraces complex time signatures and drum patterns with thematic ideas. Their first four albums were each centered on an element, fire, water, earth, and sky respectively, with artwork that incorporated these states of matter or hinted at it in the album titles. But after they tackled all four in a string of highly praised albums the band was faced with a serious question: where do they go from here? For The Hunter, the band decided to go nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
What I mean by this is that The Hunter has no central concept or theme that it works with. It’s simply a collection of mostly hit and sometimes miss songs that shows off the varied composing abilities of the group. In this sense, then, it’s understandable why the album artwork is the first one not done by band favorite Paul Romano, who did the covers for Remission, Leviathan, Blood Mountain, and Crack the Skye. This time around the album is graced by the intricate woodworking sculpture entitled “Sad Demon Oath” by AJ Fosik. While every Mastodon album cover has been busy looking, The Hunter is unique in that the centerpiece is complex and multi-layered yet the image as a whole is far more stripped down than previous outings.
This doesn’t reflect on the music itself, The Hunter is still a solid release by Mastodon but is the first record of theirs to be a collection of songs as opposed to a cohesive story told in album form. It’s all over the map and explores multiple avenues for composition which I find the wood carving to perfectly represent. There’s dozens of pieces intricately glued together and all done so in a layered format. Various body parts are repeated on the sculpture, a symbolism for the band drawing upon previous sounds (“Spectrelight” draws heavily from Blood Mountain for example) and experimenting with or building upon them on record. Outside the actual music itself, “Sad Demon Oath” is fitting for some of the tragedy surrounding the album. The Hunter is named for the drummer’s brother tragically dying on a hunting trip and the track “The Sparrow” is an ode to the band’s accountant’s wife passing due to stomach cancer. Yet while these dark elements are present, there’s still a sense of fun found on the record which is similarly exemplified by the sculpture.
For a band to alter a sound that fans have become familiar with is dangerous. There’s an inherent risk in alienating too many original supporters and not drawing in enough new people to keep your sound going. While The Hunter doesn’t reach the same levels of punchiness of Leviathan and has a couple songs that simply fall flat, the change in direction is still admirable and so was the choice of artwork. To have kept Paul Romano on would have polarized fans more as they would have expected something similar to the past. In that sense, changing from Romano to Fosik was not only a new look for the album, it was a new message by Mastodon that The Hunter was going to be different.