Over two decades, Atlanta's Mastodon have proven themselves sonic and lyrical explorers. 2004's Leviathan examined the psyches of Captain Ahab and the whale from Herman Melville's Moby Dick and 2007's Blood Mountain offered a protagonist chased across metaphysical geographies by a mutant cyclops. 2009's Crack the Skye's narrative reflected on a disabled boy astral-projected into Rasputin's body. Hushed and Grim follows one theme throughout its 88-minute sonic journey; it is not so much a concept as a meditation on the stages of grief. In 2018, Mastodon lost Nick John, their manager. It is the second time in their history that tragedy has entered their inner circle. While recording The Hunter in 2010, Brent Hinds' brother was killed in a shooting accident.
Mastodon's constant state of musical evolution dictated that the weirder, often complexly brutal progressive excursions on earlier albums took a back seat to pile-driving riffs and more approachable melodies on 2014's Once More ’Round the Sun and 2017's Emperor of Sand. The David Bottril-produced Hushed and Grim embodies their history of musical experimentation in 15 songs that crisscross prog, stoner, doom, and psych metal through vanguard and earworm melodies amid sometimes exotic modal, dynamic, and textural excursions.
Opener "Pain with an Anchor" charts a progressive trek through the moment of death itself as Brann Dailor's naked lyrics reveal, "Oh, my dear/The damage is done here/I disappear/A love with no anchor/In the depths of the sea...." The music crisscrosses early Kansas-esque prog (think Leftoverture) with the brutal power riffing heaviness and clattering drum kit pummel of Alice in Chains. "The Crux" intros with an Eastern mode before careening into buzzing post- and prog metal with guitars that simultaneously evoke the sounds of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and Opeth's Ghost Reveries. "Sickle and Peace" is just a tad softer with an unusually rootsy prog metal vibe that gives way to a punishing riff in the chorus and clean, cascading vocal harmonies from bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Hinds. "Skeleton of Splendor" begins as a ballad, complete with spooky mellotrons and serpentine guitar lines from Hinds and Bill Kelliher atop Dailor's cinematic cymbal and snare work. "Teardrinker" uncorks a wah-wah-smothered bass breakdown in a fist-pumping anthem with transcendent lead vocals. "Peace and Tranquility" is governed by one of the most intricate, syncopated twin guitar riffs in Mastodon's history. The slow, psychedelically tinged "Had It All" features a guest guitar solo from Kim Thayil and French horn from Jody Sanders (Troy's mom). After the shattering brute force of the triple-timed "Savage Lands," closer "Gigantium" is the culmination of everything that precedes it. Epic and varied, it is alternately anthemic, meandering, and melodic before whispering down into the ether carried by mournful chamber strings. While Hushed and Grim tracks the stages of grief, it also reflects on the soul's journey after death. Musically, Mastodon illuminate the emotional heft of their subject matter in gorgeously architected compositions rendered with abundant creativity, massive power, and searing honesty.