Mastodon – ‘Cold Dark Place’

By Jay Hampshire

From extreme sludge cavemen to main-stage bothering mainstream metal titans, Atlanta’s Mastodon have had the constantly ascending career path most bands can only dream of. With 2017 marking the first year we’ve been lucky enough to get two releases from the otherwise consistent quartet, we’ve been privy to an interesting glimpse into the bands’ songwriting process.

While March’s ‘Emperor Of Sand’ was primarily penned by drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher, September’s ‘Cold Dark Place’ seems to have had guitarist/vocalist/hillbilly wildman Brent Hinds as the driving force behind the tracks. Though a thick vein of the contemporary ‘Mastodon sound’ runs through the EP’s core, there’s actually a surprising amount of freshness here – the subtle twists and little differences really add a frisson of something unique.

Opener ‘North Side Star’ jangles in with soft, bright acoustics that take on an almost medieval tilt, joined by wavering synths and the ghosts of cymbals. A big wandering bassline stamps Troy Sander’s mark, before Hinds’ warbling vocals, layered over smooth croons, slide in. There’s lots of lush space here, the peripheries taken up by wailing guitars, and it’s wholly atmospheric, conjuring shades of ‘The Sparrow’ from 2011’s ‘The Hunter’. There’s an almost pendulum like sense of momentum, the breathy space building to a wonderfully southern tinged ‘chickin’ pickin’ guitar line over Brann Dailor’s silky vocals, closing out with a slick, infectious radio-rock groove and a buzzing git-box solo.

‘Blue Walsh’ drips with country tones, the shifting, constant movement and melodic focus seeing the proggy goodness of their ‘Crack The Skye’ era married to the Southern blues come cinematic scope of the band’s score for Jonah Hex. The track makes the most of Dailor’s soaring vocal talents, and ramps up the pace with dense, scuzzy bass and driving guitars, carried home by Sander’s smokey vocal boom. ‘Toe To Toes’ stick out like a sore, err, toe. Recorded a few years after the other three tracks, the lilting acoustics and energetic restless drums ease in to a heavier middle eight. There’s less layering, a more simplistic construction lending itself to the poppy, upbeat chorus and skipping snare rolls. It’s the weakest offering, coming off as a tad cheesy overall.

The title track enters with dry, strummed chords, Hinds’ whining vocals dripping with reverb over the wistful, waltzing swing. It’s ardent and heartfelt, lazily climbing and swaying, it’s lyrical overtones placing it as the nearest to a ballad we’ll probably ever see from the four piece. It broadens out with an epic guitar solo, relentlessly blazing away in a darkly romantic sense that is inarguably Hinds’ doing.

What serves this EP best is that Mastodon have finally abandoned all pretence of being a ‘heavy’ band. Sure, there are some elements of locked in drives and riffier runs, but they’re firmly in the rock camp. On their albums, the band still seem to pay lip service to their sludge origins with (often) shoehorned in sections of slightly metallic musicianship – not so here. They fully embrace their lighter side, and Hinds’ injection of almost banjo-like noodling is wonderful. True, his vocals are marble-mouthed marmite, and the lyrics are oftentimes a little too mired in the ‘back of a 14 year old’s textbook’ style of the overly obvious. But this is entirely forgivable, because this is a collection of the four best songs Mastodon have written this decade. It’s not a shift back to the glory days of ‘Leviathan’; this is an entirely different animal. If this EP is Mastodon’s cold, dark place, lets us grab our jacket – we’re happy to stay a while.

JAY HAMPSHIRE

Three more album reviews for you

LIVE: Northlane / ERRA @ Rescue Rooms, Nottingham

LIVE: Stick To Your Guns / Being As An Ocean @ O2 Academy, Islington

LIVE: PVRIS @ O2 Academy, Birmingham