Mastodon live in that rarely occupied air space between critical darling and breakout success. Ever since their days as up-and-comers on the always cool Relapse Records roster through several albums on major label Warner Bros., Mastodon have never drifted too far to the left or right.

They've stayed the course, evolving while continuing to churn out artisan noise, sophisticated sludge and gritty rock that somehow appeals to hipsters and headbangers alike. It's not easy to do, but Mastodon make it look and sound easy.

'The Hunter' follows the highly conceptual, complex and often hard to listen to 'Crack the Skye.' It's a smoother, more laid back listen that goes down easier than its predecessor. It's not trying too hard to be high brow or to achieve over-arching goals. It exists to deafen with decibels, without any dumbing down.

Album opener 'Black Tongue' is a noisy, gritty song that sets the tone with its distortion, fuzz and buzz, all to be expected from the Georgia noise merchants. 'Curl of the Burl' is the most commercial cut on 'The Hunter,' and it picks up where Queens of the Stone Age left off with 'Songs for the Deaf.' The "Whoa-oa" part is catchy and commercially viable, but still caked with a layer of Masto crust.

'Blasteroid' -- yes, we love their kooky song titles, too -- boasts a killer, riffy opening and unfolds into a beastly song that's metallic and burly, all the while being melodic without having to rely on "clean" vocals. It's short, to the point and shows off a stompy riff. 'Stargasm' slams on the breaks and slows things down and it's incredibly trippy. The sludgy sounds will make you feel like you are lost in space and the shimmery mid-section will send a tingle up your spine; even a masculine metal band like Mastodon has its softer moments on 'The Hunter.' You are just the prey.

Overall, this still sounds like the same band that pounded out essential albums like 'Remission' and 'Leviathan,' but there's no retreading. The band keeps going places you don't expect, thanks to layers on songs like 'Octopus Has No Friends,' which has a strangely appealing vocal pattern. 'On My Way Back Home' throws off a bit of maudlin depression, but it's also pretty. 'All the Heavy Lifting' is broadly epic, while 'Bedazzled Fingernails' tickles the ear with its quirky time changes. 'Dry Bone Valley' is a song with lots of parts that are unpredictable.

Mastodon have once again outdone themselves with 'The Hunter.' They do what they do best: evolve, complicate and simply stick to their formula, without ever forgetting to up the metal ante.



Mastodon Signed Drum Head & Album Giveaway!

Enter your e-mail address for a chance to win a signed drum head and signed 'The Hunter' album (signed by all members of the band)! Contest ends Oct. 27, 2011. Click here for official rules.