A new Mastodon album comes with distinct expectations. It’s always going to be good, such is the level of quality that they’ve delivered right from the start, and it’s always going to feel like its own thing within metal, no matter how many piggybackers they might pick up or branches of a scene that’ll flourish in their wake. Even among progressively-minded sludge-metal and hard rock, Mastodon have an unpredictability that tends to work in their favour, in an acumen for both expansive and comprehensive material that’s seen them thrive in basically any field they opt to find pasture in. That being said, it’s not like it’s unreasonable to take pause at Hushed And Grim in principle, where they’re effectively jettisoning the tightness that’s been so fruitful over the last few albums for their first double album, a decision that comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. It’s not as though Mastodon aren’t equipped for sprawling opuses like this—especially when that’s all their career was at a point—but it also felt as though they found such a lightning-in-a-bottle pocket with the run of streamlined works recently that wasn’t even close to being drained. Again, Mastodon’s ridiculously high floor of quality speaks for itself, but there’s also a degree of uncertainty that comes from making this shift back so suddenly and off the back of such a strong run.
That does generally apply to the album itself too, albeit with the caveat that Hushed & Grim is far from bad. If anything, Mastodon have re-acclimatised themselves to this style of music with exceptional ease, and the results feel technically proficient as ever, but lacking some of the spark that’s become so emblematic of them. Compared to albums like The Hunter or Once More ‘Round The Sun, built on huge standalone songs that clicked together for just as exceptional an album experience, Hushed And Grim takes its winding, extensive approach in stride to where the same accessibility is nowhere to be found. This feels as though it was designed to be dense and weighty, but also tremendous in its scope, and it becomes difficult to question whether or not Mastodon have already moved past what seems to be a self-imposed need to present themselves so extravagantly. It’s got fewer outright earworms than their past recent works (although Teardrinker and Gigantium do stand out in that regard), and the double album structure causes a lot of their focus to get lost among the sheer mass of work that’s here. You’re unlikely to find a bad moment, but that’s just as true of anything truly exemplary either. It should be worth stressing that that’s more in terms of what the album offers than what it does; in that regard, there’s still a roiling, cavernous quality to the guitars that aren’t completely shorn of classic metal flair yet, particularly when things ease back like on Skeleton Of Splendor, while the bass remains prominent and thick, and Brann Dailor’s drumming once again is the clear highlight for how detailled and fluid it can be. As a unit, Mastodon continue to have tremendous chemistry, to where their multi-headed vocal approach has developed a sort of serpentine ebb-and-flow now, where each performer still has a distinct tone but their respective bellows find ways to wind and flow between each other more seamlessly. That’s where the expected quality comes through the most readily, in the way that Mastodon, even on an album as enormous as this, aren’t cutting corners or cutting themselves short when it comes to sheer creative execution.
Similarly, Hushed And Grim represents a continuation down the more conceptual path that Emperor Of Sand returned to in 2017, in what could pretty much be a follow-up to that album’s own narrative. Here, the exploration of death is coloured by intermingled grief and guilt, spurred on by the loss of their friend and manager Nick Johns, and with the high-end mythology that Mastodon have become masters of weaving at this point. It’s definitely the element of guilt that feels most prominently at play though, as the album kicks off with images of great weights and crushing pressure on Pain With An Anchor and The Crux. There’s also tenacity to push on and withstand the great storm of loss though, standing resolute among the flood on Pushing The Tides, and looking for the pinprick of light and hope to drive an emergence from the pit of grief on Had It All. It’s further wrapped in the density that typically comes from Mastodon’s writing, but there’s an element of closure that can be parsed out regardless, and that’s probably where Hushed And Grim finds its strongest footing. Among Mastodon’s concept albums, it might just be the most explicitly human for all the artifice it lacks and for how direct and blunt its individual sentiments can be. Among that, Mastodon haven’t lost any of their edge either, and while the towering closer Gigantium is probably the closest they’ve come to a true-blue, arms-aloft power-ballad, it fits where the album is going, and the intent of the band who are coaxing it through that journey.
To sum up Hushed And Grim fully though, it’s definitely a Mastodon album, that much can be certain, and not one of their absolute best either, but one that carries on the storied tradition of a band pushing themselves and moving forward without fail. This is their eighth full-length, and still feels creative and purposeful without feeling as though it’s hitting a wall too much, and priding itself on getting back up again if it ever does. There’s a determination behind this album that can pick up any areas of slack immensely, where Mastodon continue to charge forward with a steadfastness that’s borderline unmatched by anyone in the field. Even on an album like this where the shortcomings and unevenness are as blatant as can be, it’s still the product of adventurousness and the spirit to carry on and keep one of the most fiercely burning flames in modern metal alive. On this evidence, Mastodon could reasonably carry on forever; rarely does a band, even on what could be somewhat qualified as a misstep, sound this ready and willing to push their own boundaries.
For fans of: Baroness, ISIS, The Ocean
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Hushed And Grim’ by Mastodon is released on 29th October on Reprise Records.