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.)
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.
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.
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.