Unlike the prehistoric mammal it’s named after, Atlanta-based metal quartet Mastodon is adept at evolving. The band’s 2002 debut,Remission—a sludge-metal concept album— had guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher combining Dream Theater-level technicality with Sabbath-meets-Motörhead grooves and moods, and even a slight nod to the Allman Brothers on “Ol’e Nessie.” Mastodon’s sophomore effort, 2004’sLeviathan, was an onslaught of headbanging goodness with a little Thin Lizzy panache mixed in. It garnered the band Album of the Year awards from
Kerrang!,Terrorizer, and other publications catering to the metal crowd.

LEFT: Bill Kelliher onstage with one of his Gibson Explorers at a June 2011 gig at the Patronaat in Haarlem, Netherlands. Photo by Cindy Frey Right: Brent Hinds with his silverburst Gibson Flying V at a June 2011 Mastodon appearance at the Norwegian Wood festival in Oslo, Norway. Photo by Per Ole Hagen

Up to that point, the band’s vocal approach had leaned more toward guttural roars, but 2006’sBlood Mountainsaw a shift, with Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders—who share vocal duties—exploring a more melodic bent. But the band’s biggest leap forward—both creatively and commercially—came with 2009’sCrack the Skye. By far the tightest, most cohesive album in their catalog up to that point, the seven- song epic showed hints of Pink Floyd and Yes influences, as well as expanded guitar palettes: Hinds and Kelliher dialed in more clean tones, and their First Act Custom Shop 9- and 12-string axes provided a sound that Hinds described as a “ringing, atonal chorus effect unmatched by any chorus pedal.”

However, for this year’sThe Hunter, Kelliher and Hinds veered away from the concept approach. “The new album is about nothing,” says Hinds, who also leads the surfabilly band Fiend Without a Face and several other side projects during Mastodon downtime. But the difference onThe Hunterisn’t just lyrical. On past albums, Hinds took the lead on riff writing, but this time around Kelliher contributed more song ideas, and both wrote and recorded their own riffs and songs individually. “It’s tighter because we did it this way,” says Kelliher. Both guitarists also experimented with new gear.

Your previous albums have been pretty epic. How did your approach differ for The Hunter?

Kelliher:WithCrack the Skye, most of those riffs were written by Brent, but this time we all contributed musical ideas. We decided to take a different approach, because we’re all pretty busy outside the world of Mastodon, and after touring for nearly two years we really wanted to take a break. BeforeThe Hunter, when Brent would a write a song—or vice versa— the other person would learn it and double it, or come up with their own complementary part. But onThe Hunter, there are parts and songs where it’s strictly Brann [Dailor, drums] and me or Brent and Brann—that’s something we’ve never really done before.

Hinds:I really didn’t approachThe Hunterany different than our previous albums. We just decided—like we always do—to write and record a cool album that’s badass, and to do the best we can. I play guitar so much in Mastodon and my other bands that I don’t really block out time to write—if something comes to me while I’m jamming and it sticks with me, I’ll generally try recording it. But if I forget the riff or idea, then it probably wasn’t meant to be.