Stellar covers and instrumentals obscured by a haphazard structure
Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Mastodon rose to prominence since the release of its debut album, Remission (2002), which was generally praised as having a distinct sound. What makes the band so special is the way they fuse various subgenres of metal together. According to the band’s bassist, Troy Sanders, the band incorporates a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, and progressive rock, and “sprinkle” some thrash, punk and psychedelic rock in some songs. Their delicate sense of combining a myriad of styles has shaped what their fans would recognize as Mastodon.
The question, then, is Mastodon maintaining their charismatic sound and style throughout their career, or has that already faded since their first four conceptual albums in which each album is based around an element (in the order of fire, water, earth and aether). Let’s find out by taking a look at Medium Rarities, the band’s eighth full-length release and first compilation album. It consists of 16 covers, instrumental versions of songs from previous albums and live recordings.
The opening track of Medium Rarities, “Fallen Torches” is solid and powerful. First premiered this year as a single, it has a neat balance between harsh and clean vocals. The transitions are fluid and, my goodness, the outro riff slays. The next song, “A Commotion,” is a cover track. Back in 2012, singer-songwriter Feist covered Mastodon’s “Black Tongue” while Mastodon covered Feist’s “A Commotion,” releasing a split album Feistodon. Mastodon’s version adds an extra layer of sinisterness and heaviness, which is an apt addition for portraying such a commotion.
“Asleep in the Deep” is an instrumental. Initially released as a song on the album Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014), the instrumental version allows the listener to focus specifically on the progressive aspect of the band. Brent Hinds’s solo towards the end of the piece is a very pleasant listen. “Capillarian Crest” is the first live recording featured on the album. Although the vocals are less than amazing, the complex, upbeat riff and time signature changes are satisfying to listen to. The final section is full of energy and force, which Mastodon absolutely nails at their live shows.
The fifth track is a faithful cover of The Flaming Lips’s “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton.” Nothing much has been altered, except for the heaviness of the drums. The piano parts are gracefully written, especially the intro, and the song as a whole has an otherworldly beauty. “Toe to Toes” is another instrumental that was originally a song from the EP Cold Dark Place (2017). This progressive piece is eccentric in that the listener can both dance and headbang to the first riff.
The second live recording, “Circle of Cysquatch,” presents heavily distorted vocals and sounds. Again, the raspy vocals are not particularly effective, but the progressive touches are nice. The next track “Atlanta” features Gibby Haynes as the vocalist and lyricist. The opening riff is reminiscent of Muse’s “Stockholm Syndrome.” The sound effects and lyrics are bizarre, and remain incomprehensible for most of the track.
The second half of the album begins with progressive instrumental “Jaguar God” from the album Emperor of Sand (2017). Originally recorded with vocals, the piece has a good mixture of smooth and heavy sections. Unfortunately, the transitions feel abrupt as a result 0f the lack of vocal melodies to lend a sense of direction to the piece. The next piece, “Cut You Up With A Linoleum Knife,” seems to be inspired by Judas Priest. The riff after the intro sounds like “Painkiller” and some vocal parts resemble Rob Halford. The lyrics are absurd, but the riffs, guitar duel and compactness of the song compensate for that.
“Blood and Thunder” (from album Leviathan (2004) is an epic live track. The harsh vocals complement the fierce riffs very well, and the transitions in and out of odd meters feels natural. Simply put, the song is an absolute banger. “White Walker” (released in 2016 for Game of Thrones) is vastly different from the rest of the tracks, as it utilizes acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies throughout the first half of the song to express somberness. The second half has more weight due to the inclusion of electric guitar, but the somberness pervades the entire runtime. “Halloween” is another upbeat instrumental, also initially released as a song on the album Once More ‘Round the Sun.
“Crystal Skull (live version)” follows that energy with a couple of wicked riffs from the band’s 2016 album Blood Mountain, although the beats are more subdivided in order to create a stronger sense of speed over sheer force. The penultimate track and final instrumental, “Orion,” was composed by Metallica for the iconic album Master of Puppets (1986). Mastodon kept their version as faithful as possible to the original, keeping the incorporation of their own style on this cover to a minimum. This respectful decision may have resulted in a more interesting cover. The album ends with a live version of “Iron Tusk” (from Leviathan). The song lacks a sense of direction and thus lacks momentum. One thing that stood out in the live recording is that it fades out (despite recorded live), while the studio version (original) ends with a short note.
The album may be great for ardent Mastodon fans, but there are two issues that make it underwhelming. First, the distortion in some songs is too strong (especially when using a pair of headphones), leading to an unpleasant listening experience. Second, the absence of a theme or purpose that would help new listeners pay more attention to the band and their discography. There are too many covers and arrangements that only fans would notice and appreciate. While this is obviously not a bad thing for those fans, it’s not the best look for most others.
Since there was no new song on this album, the direction of the band is unclear. Indeed, “Fallen Torches” was released this year, but it would be foolish to judge the band’s future path based on a single song. What this album has shown, however, is the band’s versatility and dexterity. Assuming that this compilation album was never intended for the masses, there is still a good chance that Mastodon could come up with another remarkable record, unleashing their full potential through that distinct versatility and dexterity.