Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Ocean > Mastodon

With the release of their newest album Once More 'Round the Sun  rapidly approaching, Mastodon are once again the talk of the metal community. This happens once every two or three years, and every time it does I find myself in the position of a baffled onlooker.

Many people whose music opinions I respect really like Mastodon, so I'm not going to claim there's anything objectively wrong with them. All I can speak to is what my own ears tell me, and what they tell me is that Mastodon are receiving a lot more praise than they're earning.

Meanwhile, last year The Ocean released another towering monument to all that is good about progressive sludge, adding to an already impressive resume. So, rather than just shooting down the reigning kings of the sub-genre and moving on, I'll instead present you with a take on these alternative masters of prog sludge who my ears tell me are distinctly superior.

What follows is my list of five reasons to listen to The Ocean instead of Mastodon.

(Of course, there's nothing to stop you from enjoying both.)

#1. Teeth

These days when I listen to a Mastodon album, I invariably find myself thinking "What would they sound like if they still had teeth?" If you've ever wondered this too, The Ocean are here to save the day. As Mastodon have moved further into a prog space, they've lost virtually all of their edge. I say "lost" because Mastodon weren't always toothless. Leviathan  was plenty hard-hitting, but since then the band have sacrificed all their heaviness and grit for prog polish. The Ocean, on the other hand, manage to explore just as far into progressive territory and still have a lot of bite.

#2. Dynamics

The Ocean are an extremely aurally dynamic band. Many groups treat the hard/soft dynamic like an on/off switch. Better groups approach it as a point on a sliding scale. The best groups treat it like a point in three-dimensional space, allowing not just heaviness but also tone, tempo, energy, and style to shift and flux throughout an album. In this respect, The Ocean are one of the best groups. From hard to soft, ethereal to visceral, experimental and proggy to direct and punchy The Ocean cover all the bases. Further, they move so seamlessly from one point to the next that this vast dynamic range never feels forced or erratic. Mastodon are reasonably successful in this vein too, but their dynamic range is less expansive and less fluid.

#3. Emotional Energy

Mastodon are, to my ears, a very dispassionate band. Their early releases had some inner fire, but by the time they released Blood Mountain  they were already falling into that common progressive trap of being more interested in technical noodling than in injecting any real energy or emotion into their music. The first time I heard Crack the Skye  the music was so completely and utterly drained of emotional impact that my immediate reaction was essentially "What the fuck is this shit?" The Ocean, on the other hand, have kept some soul in their music.

#4. Songwriting

Noodling and technicality have their place, but at the end of the day I want to hear a song that's actually well-structured and coherent. The Ocean's music has a sense of purpose, a direction, and it pulls you along toward its conclusion. Mastodon, on the other hand, feel a bit listless, like they're just fiddling their way through a Grateful Dead jam session. For an album to take the listener on a ride, it needs more than musicianship: it needs songwriting to tell it where the hell it's going.

#5. Because I Said So

Let's be honest: if better songwriting, more expansive and interesting dynamics, greater emotional energy, and some actual balls still left in the music aren't enough to convince you to go listen to a band then a 5th reason really won't do much good. So set aside those good reasons for a moment and just do it for me. Do it because you value my opinion, or because you share my interest in discovering new music, or because you want to be properly armed to disagree with me. Just check out their latest album. Maybe if more people did, I wouldn't have to hear so damn much about Mastodon.


  1. "The Hunter" sucked, the new one will probably suck harder.

    I basically jumped off the bandwagon after "Blood Mountain", which was their most brilliant outing.

    I'll give this Ocean album a listen, though.

    1. Finished listening. I know one listen is not a lot to go on, but based on it, I can say that I like it more than "Crack the Skye" or "The Hunter".

  2. I think everyone has those weird blind spots, where they just don't get something that's great. I know I have them.

    How you could call Mastodon listless, I'll never understand. Every bit of it feels purposeful to me, and never moreso than on The Hunter.

    I've always kind of ignored The Ocean, though, because it seemed like I only heard about them in fora where prog metal is king, and those fora often heap a lot of praise on garbage. I haven't given it a fair listen, but I skipped forward to 3:30, listened to 5:30, and I don't like what I hear. Vocals and random stabbing at the instruments. The section right after that (to 6:45) is better, but has a radio rock vibe to it that I don't care for. Something about it says it should have a "For fans of Between the Buried and Me" sticker.

    My diagnosis is that I don't really see that this is a comparable band to Mastodon. Yeah, technically they're both progressive sludge metal, but this sounds like progressive metal with a sludge side (the piano part right after that reinforces that impression), whereas Mastodon started out as sludge metal and then just made that progressive. Mastodon also made it ridiculously catchy.

    Again, I'm not giving this a full and fair shake, (I'm turning it off at the 10:00 mark) but I don't get it. If I had to write a full review off of what I heard, I would probably end it with "for prog-heads only, especially if they're from the metalcore generation."

    There's my dollar-forty-five to a question you didn't ask. :)

    1. Also, I'm fully willing to concede that the vocals are an acquired taste, and that there probably isn't a good reason I don't like the vocals on The Ocean (only bad associations with other things).

    2. Fair enough. We all have different things click for us. This arena is one where my opinion runs distinctly against the grain, so I accept that I'm going to face a lot of disagreement. It's entirely possible that Mastodon are doing something great that I just don't understand. I don't think they are, but that's only my opinion.

    3. Good, good. I thought some more about this, and I think it makes more sense to compare Mastodon to dirty, balls-out rock like Red Fang. Anyway, I'll probably write more when I review the new album.

    4. The thought had occurred to me, but I'm not a fan of Red Fang either, so it felt a little counter-productive to recommend them over Mastodon.

      Though maybe that's the problem. Maybe it's not Mastodon specifically that I dislike. It could be that there's this entire niche that I don't like, and Mastodon just happen to be one of the bands in it.