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  • Photo by Cindy Frey

Mastodon is a beast. The Atlanta heavy metal kings began a decade ago, playing over-the-top, technical 15-minute epic songs you'd never imagine would resonate with general audiences. Going from basement shows to big tours opening for the band's favorite, Metallica, Mastodon has grown, evolved and streamlined over the years.

"We are always pushing ourselves in a better direction of songcraft," says bassist/singer Troy Sanders.

Previously, Mastodon was known for marathon, shape-shifting super jams, but Sanders describes the band's new record as "like a Mastodon mixtape."

"We have such a wide array of inspirations and potential sounds in us," Sanders says. "We could write 15-minute songs all day but for The Hunter we decided to light the spark and get in and out of each song, which was ultimately more energizing, especially after two-and-a-half straight years of touring and playing all these really epic layered and emotional songs. The Hunter is more quick bursts of raw energy."

Produced by Michael Elizondo (Eminem, 50 Cent, Pink, Gwen Stefani) The Hunter is Mastodon's first album that doesn't follow a detailed storyline. Only hardcore fans could be expected to follow the intricate mythologies the band concocted on its initial recordings Remission and Leviathan. Still, that approach was a big part of the band's mystique. "This was our first free-form situation," Sanders says. "No matter what kind of riff came along, no matter what it sounded like, if we liked it we just built it into a song. So this time the songs are all very diverse, yet the record is more to the point."

Along with a smattering of synthesizers and Hammond organ (incorporated mostly in the form of disturbing textures), another big change ushered in with The Hunter is discernible lyrics.

"We focused on better vocals and vocal patterns to marry the voices to the songs — to make them bigger and better," Sanders says.

Brent Hinds (guitar), Brann Dailor (drums) and Sanders share singing duties and caveman harmonies, which populate their albums with myriad disparate voices, all adding to the sense of massive scale. "Blasteroid" features a single mountain lionlike voice shrieking, "I wanna drink some f—king blood!" Later, noise and laughter build into "Creature Lives," which Dailor sings in a voice that would fit in MGMT.

The Hunter's first single, "Curl of the Burl," rides the same stoner metal vocal-heavy groove that put Queens of the Stone Age on the radio, but with hidden trip-outs in the smallest corners — instead of spilling out everywhere as they did on Mastodon's earlier records. "'Curl of the Burl' is a short, sweet song, catchy but bizarre," Sanders says. "We didn't write it to be on the radio, it just came out of us — but if Mastodon gets on the radio, I'd say that's a good thing.

"The burl is the knot that's found in trees," Sanders says. "When trees have a stressful period they create this knot, with all these swirls inside. Furniture-makers cut them out and use them a lot."

Mastodon is a bigger band than it was when it last visited New Orleans. During a show at the House of Blues, Sanders got carried away with an onstage birthday ceremony for guitarist Bill Kelliher.

"It was the opening night of our U.S. tour, and everyone told me not to throw the cake," Sanders says. "But I ended up throwing it icing-first onto the mixing board. I had to pay $2,500 out of pocket to have the board cleaned. That was about all the money I would've made on that tour. It was a break-even tour. Lesson well-learned, for sure."

The band's shows typically feature high-tech visual effects, but at Voodoo, Mastodon's stage set up, like the new album, will be more stripped down.

"We've had LED lights and whatnot in the past," Sanders says. "But this time we're flying in from tour to play Voodoo. So I can only promise the people will see four ugly cavemen on stage, sending out a lot of energy."

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