Mastodon’s Cold Dark Place: Icy Stoicism, Ferocious Breakdowns

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I enjoyed one track off Mastodon’s last effort, Emperor of Sand, and it brings me no joy to say that.

While Mastodon is one of the most important bands in the history of metal, the sludge titans simply didn’t seem to have much left to say. It’s not as if their stunning virtuosity suddenly diminished — the pummeling riffs and serpentine solos throughout the record demonstrate as much. It’s just that the material felt so impersonal. We were presented a vision of Mastodon as a brand, safely retreading old ideas rather than embrace the progressive spirit that’s so evidently at the root of their previous masterworks.

But this is 2017; no metal record is going to fly off the shelves no matter how accessible it is. Clever marketing campaigns, interesting music videos, and poppy songs may have some impact on rock record sales, but evidently not enough considering the dire commercial state of the genre and its offshoots.

Given this, metal artists might as well release whatever the fuck they want however the fuck they want, because it won’t make that much of a difference anyway.

That’s exactly what Mastodon has done with their latest, Cold Dark Place, a surprise EP that’s superior to Emperor of Sand in every way. Even at just four tracks and 22 minutes, it feels meatier and more cohesive than anything the group has put together in years. This may be owed to the fact that singer/guitarist Brent Hinds purportedly penned each song himself (as the material here was originally written for a solo project), giving the proceedings the sort of direction and intent that just can’t be replicated by collaboration.

But who knows if that’s actually the case–I’m not writing this to speculate on band dynamics I’m not privy to.

I am, however, writing this to tell you that these songs kick ass.

The vibe of Cold Dark Place is true to its name, though its melancholy never becomes overwrought. Mastodon’s characteristically wild song structures are dialed back a bit here; whereas previous records split riffs pretty evenly between the weird and lively and the heavy and somber, this EP spends most of its time in the latter category. Considering the project’s straightforward production, (merciful) lack of an overarching narrative, and lyrical focus on regret, loss, and aging, this bleaker aesthetic is quite fitting.

There’s an icy stoicism to a lot of Cold Dark Place’s most memorable riffs. Troy Sanders’ vocals soar over the circular guitar licks, measured bassline, and shuffling drums of the massive verses on “Toe to Toes,” delivering some harrowing lyrics describing a dark and endless cycle: “I have seen this once before / I have felt these colors / I have known you for so long / Since we ran in circles / For our sake / I will wait for you.” For all the high concept voyages Mastodon has taken us on, the band’s lyrics are at their best when they’re content to remain cryptic and elemental, and this image of a lifelong specter of torment hits hard.

This nuanced tone is beautifully realized on the EP’s second (and best) cut, “Blue Walsh.” From the angular guitars that kick the song off to Brann Dailor’s beautiful vocal delivery (chock full of sly references to the band’s past songs), the bassy chorus to the panicked, frenetic breakdown, this track is one of the smoothest-flowing and purposeful pieces they’ve put together since Once More ‘Round the Sun’s “Diamond in the Witch House.” The ferocious breakdown that kicks in as the song comes to a close may find Sanders belting, “Time has caught up with me / Taking all my energy,” but the song itself is evidence to the contrary, proving that Mastodon still has bold statements to make.

The closing title track, meanwhile, may be one of the simplest songs the band has put together, consisting of just three main sections over the course of its six-minute running time, allowing its creepy, nocturnal atmosphere to realize its full potential. Hinds’ slurred crooning tells the story of a bad breakup and all the conflicting feelings that follow, which prove a perfect match for the song’s slowly arpeggiating guitars and extremely sparse rhythm section. Catharsis does arrive with a fiery guitar solo at the track’s end, but we have to wallow in anguish with Hinds to get there. This is a band that usually moves a mile a minute, trying to indulge its listeners in as much mind-bending, ear-candy riffage as they can in as short a window of time as possible. For them to slow it down this much — particularly with a song that’s far more ethereal than it is heavy or poppy — is surprising and impressive.

The track is emblematic of the EP as a whole. Mastodon’s latest is driven by confident acceptance. Acceptance of the fact that they’re older, that their fans are older, and that the same old tricks just don’t work anymore. Cold Dark Place offers a glimpse at a veteran band unburdened by their reputation, shrugging off the pressures that come with being popular and respected, content to make music that doesn’t necessarily stay on-brand.

Hopefully that glimpse isn’t fleeting.