When people talk about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the music industry, they mostly talk about the cancelled shows and the loss of touring income. But there’s been another effect, which is the death of the album cycle.
I worked for Roadrunner Records from 2011 to 2014, generating content for their website. When one of the label’s acts had a new album, there would be a months-long press cycle. It would start six to eight weeks before the record was to be released, with label-created content. The album title would be announced, along with its cover art, track listing and some other credits (who produced it, if there were any special guests, stuff like that). Then there would be a single, sometimes with a video. There would be new photos of the band — some staged press shots, some images taken while they were in the recording studio. There would be a second single. Tour dates would be announced. Throughout all of this, interviews with the biggest press outlets available would appear. Then the album would be released, and the band would hit the road.
Once all the label-generated content was exhausted, and the pre-release features had run, and the album was out and the band was on tour, it was my job to scour the internet for fresh content generated by other outlets, which I would then signal boost via the label’s website and social media accounts. If there was a backstage interview on YouTube, or a feature in some alt-weekly, I would find it and share it around. This could go on for as long as three months, while the band supported their new album. Eventually the flow of content would slow to a trickle, and finally end, and/but by then another Roadrunner band would have an album out or imminent (press cycles would often overlap, so I’d be posting about two or three bands every day, especially during the summer touring season).
The point was to keep the music alive in listeners’ consciousness for as long as possible, because while a band’s hardcore fans know when a new record is coming out, the majority of the public does not. If you want to reach them, you have to tell them again and again and again that you exist, that your record exists, and that it is available for purchase.
In the era of Covid-19, there are no more album cycles. A lot of bands don’t tour at all. If they do tour, they don’t do press, because fifteen minutes spent shooting video backstage with the wrong person can mean multiple cancelled concerts. This can cause an album to sink like a pebble dropped into the ocean. For example, in February 2020, I traveled to New York to interview Thundercat for The Wire. He had a new album, It Is What It Is, coming out in April. And it was released, and it got good reviews, but the pandemic was already ramping up. Thundercat couldn’t tour in support of It Is What It Is, and it died on the vine. (When I interviewed pianist Cameron Graves for the Burning Ambulance podcast, he mentioned what happened to Thundercat’s album as a key reason why he kept his own album Seven — which I had heard in late 2019 — on the shelf until 2021.)
The same thing seems to have happened to Mastodon, to a lesser degree. A little over six months ago, on October 29, 2021, they released their eighth studio album, Hushed and Grim. They undertook a fall tour with Opeth, which went fairly well, though drummer Brann Dailor caught Covid as soon as it ended. (The two bands are out on the road together again as of this writing, and Opeth has released a new, expanded edition of their 2019 album In Cauda Venenum with three extra tracks. And later this fall, Mastodon will tour with Ghost.)
Hushed and Grim got generally positive reviews, and one song was even nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy, though they lost to Dream Theater. And the band has been doing a few interviews in the wake of the album’s release, but out of necessity they have been keeping a much lower profile than before, and to my mind, the album has consequently not received the consideration it deserves. Because when you listen to it carefully, Hushed and Grim is about as hellishly perfect a soundtrack to the Covid-19 era as I can imagine.
Several of Mastodon’s albums have been inspired by tragic events in the members’ lives; indeed, one could easily call the band haunted. The title track of 2009’s Crack the Skye was a tribute to Dailor’s sister, who committed suicide as a teenager, and some of the album’s abstruse lyrical imagery came to guitarist Brent Hinds while he was in a coma after an assault. The title of 2011’s The Hunter was a reference to Hinds’ brother Brad, who died of a heart attack on a hunting trip while the album was being recorded. Emperor of Sand, their 2017 release, was in large part about the fear of mortality brought on by bassist Troy Sanders’ wife’s battle with cancer, and guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother’s death from the disease.
Hushed and Grim was inspired by the 2018 death of Mastodon’s longtime manager Nick John from pancreatic cancer, and Kelliher’s wife being diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare disease that required extensive chemotherapy. He told Guitar World, “you just never know how life can sneak up on you. You think you’re healthy one minute and the next minute you’ve got this crazy rare disease.”
It’s a long record, spreading 15 tracks across two CDs and running more than 86 minutes. And it throws you into the deep end, musically and emotionally speaking. The first song, “Pain With an Anchor,” fades in on one of those thundering Dailor patterns that’s somewhere between a drumbeat and a drum solo, and the opening lines of the album are “Oh my dear, look what we’ve done here/My greatest fear/A pain with an anchor.” The song continues, “Into my mouth will enter/The hardest pill I’ve ever had to swallow down,” and what has been a gloomy, almost postpunk melody becomes a distorted riff like a wall of cinder blocks falling from the sky.
Hushed and Grim is not a story-driven concept album the way Leviathan or Blood Mountain or Crack the Skye or Emperor of Sand are. But it is thematically unified: This is an album about pain. Line after line, the words sink into the listener’s flesh like blunt darts. “Don’t get too close this time”; “Just another scar I wear and hold dear”; “Can you tell me how to wish away/The chaos making my head spin”; “I can see your face/And I feel the pain/And I feel the shame that I have let you down again”; “Round and round we battle ourselves”; “The illusion’s gone, the end is here/All that I have sacrificed is leaving me and letting go now” — These aren’t even poetically phrased sentiments. They’re wails of raw anguish.
I’m not a guy who pays a lot of attention to lyrics, most of the time, so if all this album had to offer was a journey through despair, set to bland singer-songwritery arrangements, I wouldn’t care a bit. Fortunately, every song on Hushed and Grim delivers musically in ways no other band I know about can manage. Mastodon’s cocktail of influences and inspirations draws from much more than metal. There’s a lot of progressive rock and AOR here; the guitar tones and melodies make me think of Wish You Were Here/Animals-era Pink Floyd, early ’80s .38 Special, pre-MTV ZZ Top, and OK Computer-era Radiohead (the latter two on the same song, “The Beast,” which also features a stunning guitar solo from Marcus King, a player from the Southern rock/blues-rock/jam-band world). “Skeleton of Splendor,” a song any other band on Earth would have just called “To My Detriment,” is an epic, skyscraping ballad anchored by João Nogueira’s piano. “Had It All” is another slow song, one in a morose ’90s alt-rock vein, which makes the arrival of the album’s second guest guitar solo, from Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, almost too apt, and yet still breathtaking. The album’s final track, “Gigantium,” takes things out on the most grandiose note of all, with a soaring, almost Jane’s Addiction-esque vocal melody, a turn toward nearly power metal dramatics around the three-and-a-half-minute mark, and a dark-hued string section coda.
Hushed and Grim is not just a great album, it’s the perfect album for this moment. I wish that was a good thing. Every word, every song, is suffused with a deep pain that almost anyone can relate to after two years of isolation, risk, suffering, and death. A million Americans have died (and that’s a wildly conservative estimate; look up the phrase “excess death” and scream into your pillow). Hundreds of thousands more are damaged, physically or mentally or both, and no one — not them, not their loved ones — knows if they’ll ever fully come back. And it’s not over. It’s nowhere even close to over. (Keep your fucking mask on.) So this record, which is long and challenging, not because it’s musically ugly (it’s not; even the heaviest and most aggressive songs have some kind of beauty gleaming from within, and many of them are heart-stoppingly, Romantically gorgeous) but because it’s relentless, may seem like it’s too much to deal with. But if you take this nearly 90-minute ride, I think you’ll come out the other side…cleansed in some way. Do it.