In a metal scene that has become somewhat conservative and lacking in inspiration in recent years, Mastodon has forged its way to the head of the pack with four albums of consistently high quality. The group seems to have in spades what most other heavier bands lack, namely variety, originality, and a clear sense of flow and rhythm to go along with their technical prowess and ability to ignite a moshpit as well as anyone else. Album number five sees them in strange territory: By scaling down the planet-sized ambition of prog-metal epic Crack The Skye, they have somehow managed to take a step forward anyway.

The latest incarnation of the band sees them at their loosest and most confident, and it is evident over The Hunter’s 13 stylistically varied tracks that this is now a band so comfortable in their own skin, they can do whatever they want. You want groovy, funky rock with a ‘70s feel? Try “Curl Of The Burl.” You want big rock songs with fists-in-the-sky choruses? Try the irresistible mid-album double of “The Octopus Has No Friends” and “All The Heavy Lifting.” How about a lighter-in-the-air anthem about a swamp creature? Try “Creature Lives,” probably the best song about a swamp creature ever written.

Any sense of silliness suggested by that last song is entirely deliberate. This is a band that can turn out songs with titles like “Blasteroids” and “Stargasm” and still be a force to be reckoned with. They may occasionally sound like they are goofing around (and what’s that album cover all about?) but they take their vocation extremely seriously. This is most obviously evident in the astonishing virtuosity on display throughout the album. Brann Dailor’s drumming has always been of the “are you kidding me?” variety, a lethal cocktail of speed, precision, and an ability to play around the beat. On this album however, Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher continue the increasingly showy guitar play they demonstrated on Crack The Skye, something they use with great judgment. Mastodon never lets a technical display get in the way of a good tune, but every band member here seems to get to spend time center stage at some point, and the development is obvious.

It’s the tunes that really stand out on The Hunter. “Curl Of The Burl” may be the most radio-friendly song they have ever written, but it’s also one of the best, a song that backs up Hinds’s suggestion that the band leans towards classic rock rather than metal these days. “All The Heavy Lifting’s” anthemic chorus is the kind of thing most bands dream of coming up with once in their career, but it’s something Mastodon manages to do several times on this one album. When they slow the pace down, like on the title track and “The Thickening,” the songs still remain completely compelling. And in case you were worried that they had lost their hard edge, listen to “Spectrelight,” a song that will be crushing skulls at a venue near you very soon.

Despite being slightly longer in length than Mastodon’s last album, The Hunter feels so much tighter, and by abandoning the idea of “concept albums,” the group has allowed themselves to reach even further than before. It is full of ideas but nothing feels underdeveloped or rushed. The album could (and should) make them huge, but maybe they are just a little too left field for true global mega stardom. Never mind. Those of us lucky enough to already be on board can continue to join in the party, and The Hunter is not only one of the year’s best albums (in any genre) but also confirmation that in their field, Mastodon remains the standard bearers. A rare beast of an album.

For more on Mastodon including details of their forthcoming gig in Los Angeles, visit their official website.