“I can see what the world has done to you / I can feel the weight,” sings Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor on “The Motherload,” one of the strongest tracks on the Atlanta metal band’s sixth album, Once More ’Round The Sun. There’s a weariness to that title, and to the lyrics, but “The Motherload” doesn’t show it. First of all, producer Nick Raskulinecz—known for his work with Foo Fighters, Rush, Alice In Chains, and Deftones—applies an impregnable shell of slickness to the band’s tuneful, intricate layering of riffs. Beneath it, though, is a probing of pain and age that’s only slightly anesthetized.
Full of ghosts and scars, Once More ’Round The Sun couldn’t be further from Mastodon’s last full-length, 2011’s The Hunter. Instead of a grab-bag of tracks, the new album is a return to the conceptual template the group once exclusively used. Here, the thematic arc doesn’t overshadow the material or even draw attention to itself. Songs like “High Road” and “Feast Your Eyes” combine the liquid riffs and needling hooks of guitarists Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds into sleek, anthemic weaponry, all while effortlessly navigating sky-high melodies and complex rhythms.
Once More ’Round The Sun is a nimble album, but it has its moments of emotional quicksand. “Chimes At Midnight” not only calls back—with a specific reference—to Mastodon’s 2004 breakthrough, Leviathan. It also gallops deeply and darkly into a fatalistic mood of mythic tragedy: “All my heroes / They’re all dead.” Scott Kelly of Neurosis, possessor of one of metal’s most doom-soaked voices, adds his gravelly gravity to the album’s eerie closer, “Diamond In The Witch House”—but it’s preemptively offset by the gloriously riotous guest vocals (provided by the Atlanta punk band The Coathangers) on “Aunt Lisa,” Dailor’s eulogy for his late aunt.
Dailor and crew went down a similar path on Mastodon’s 2009 album Crack The Skye, which was partly a tribute to his sister, who had committed suicide. Like the rest of Once More ’Round The Sun, however, the relative brightness of “Aunt Lisa” focuses more on the renewal that goes hand-in-glove with death. These are all elements Mastodon has used before, edited then distilled into impeccable, prog-metal songcraft. For the first time in its 14-year existence, Mastodon has made an album that breaks little new ground—but thanks to Once More ’Round The Sun’s balance between a light touch and a heavy vibe, it doesn’t have to.