Concert review: Mastodon

mastodon

also appearing: Eagles of Death Metal
Taft Theater, Cincinnati, Ohio – May 14, 2017

Words do scant justice to the concussive force and frightening authority with which Mastodon’s full-length debut Remission landed, like a meteor or similar harbinger of doom, in my life in 2002. Muscular and uncompromising, this young band seemed immediately driven to push into and conquer territory other artists were perhaps unnerved by or else hadn’t the capacity to envision. Remission was, at once, exotic and pulverizing, and had a particularly invigorating way about it, a smart bomb cast into the wasteland of the then-dying “Nu Metal” scene to finish the job definitively. In fifteen years as a metal fan, I couldn’t recall ever hearing an album like it. Another fifteen years later, and six more official longplayers into Mastodon’s career, I still haven’t. Powered by Bronn Dailor’s hyperkinetic drumming and anchored by urgent twin guitar that hadn’t yet acknowledged the need for nuance, let alone incorporated it, Remission is a hulking cyborg of an album, machine-like in its precision yet intriguingly human at its core, and a deadly potent throwback for fans who have charted Mastodon’s uneven course since. Thematically, its songs – “hits” include “Crusher Destroyer”, “Mother Puncher”, “Trampled Under Hoof”, and “March of the Fire Ants” – are straightforward, bluntly emotive affairs preoccupied with shows of strength at the expense of all else. Hearing them again, so many listens and so much water under the bridge later, still carries the bracing excitement of the new.

I practically popped a blood vessel the other day when, already deep in preparation for their upcoming show at the historic Taft Theater in downtown Cincinnati, I attempted spontaneously to describe to a politely interested but otherwise complete layman what Mastodon sounded like. Rarely has the appreciable gulf between how well I speak on a subject versus how well I write about it been rendered in such stark, depressing terms. The descriptors floated in ether before me, actively defiant puzzle pieces that made little more sense strung together than they had disassembled. Yet I knew a picture was there. Perhaps, in retrospect, I should’ve taken a crack at some other mystery of the universe more widely known. The tectonic intersection of Bill Kelliher’s Paleolithic guitar, Brent Hinds’ frenetic leadwork, and Brann Dailor’s absurdly busy drumming is an alchemic explosion of cyclonic sound and power. It swirls, and stomps, and stampedes, taking a bushel of established metal templates – prog, sludge, stoner, groovy hard rock – melting those down and reforging them into singular, bleeding-edge weaponry shot through with a strain of weird but undeniably cool faux-mysticism. The Atlanta quartet has carved an enviable professional niche for itself out of pure sweat and restless creativity, one second to none in the current generation of heavy music, even inviting surprising comparison – perhaps unfair, perhaps uncomfortable, hardly unfounded – with genre overlords Metallica.*

* I sense your hesitation, and have prepared a handy checklist to supplement this fun new game: 1) Introduction of an arguably game-changing sound/style into a then-staid metal marketplace starving for new ideas? 2) Over-romanticized debut album? 3) Best-of-class musicianship, work ethic, and a singular, easily recognizable band identity both on album and off? 4) Marked shift from relatively linear early attack into something more “epic”, soon followed, at that progression’s apex, by a jarring downshift into less complex, ostensibly “popular” fare? 5) Righteous initial four-album streak, followed by a clear line of demarcation separating, for the snobs among us, unimpeachable early quality from later populist tripe? 6) Rabid, ever-expanding fanbase, content to eat/sleep/breathe this music, and convinced, despite any whiff of controversy, that the band can do no wrong? Uh, yeah – check, check, and sextuple check.

Mastodon’s popular profile in recent years bears increasingly little resemblance to the rampaging kaiju of old, or at least so it has often seemed to me. As the band has morphed from bloodthirsty underground behemoth to eclectic genre torch bearer to people’s choice finalist, I’ve admittedly (and purposely) been otherwise occupied. Part of this is no doubt the latent, lingering, elitist anti-success B.S. that so many metalheads succumb to in their late teens and twenties, but the simple truth is that I burned through so much emotional capital as an unalloyed fan of Remission, and its amazing, possibly even superior, successor Leviathan, that when the band subtly but discernibly shifted gears on 2006’s Blood Mountain, adding enough fluidity and airiness to turn an already tricky equation into advanced trigonometry, I was in some ways too exhausted to pay the proper attention. As Mastodon has further evolved over the intervening years, I’ve observed them largely from arm’s length, as a torrent of grateful new fans clamored to assume my place. If my interest never officially waned, my enthusiasm unfortunately did. Despite numerous opportunities, and near-universal encouragement to do so, I never rushed out to see the band live, and the times I did catch them, at outdoor shows as openers or co-headliners – where the lion’s share of stage time seemed devoted to pimping their latest (frankly) substandard new album – only served to reinforce my creeping prejudices.

Thus it was that this trip to the Kentucky border constituted my first ever time witnessing Mastodon playing a true headlining set. I was determined to make the most of it, and took the rare step of hammering together a hefty playlist out of the most recent information I could glean from setlist.fm, the invaluable concert database. Normally, I prefer to be surprised, but when traveling, as I was, with a superfan (after so many occasions spent as the de facto fan myself), I figured it would pay to be/appear well-versed in all an artist’s movements over time, not just the ones I happened to love the most. That said, the lesson learned from previous engagements observing Mastodon in the wild was to make peace with their most recent album, because you were going to be hearing a lot of it. The good news is that, with the exception of 2012’s closely trimmed, uncomfortably aerodynamic The Hunter, even the band’s comparative downturns are more accurately charted laterally than as actual declines. Released two weeks before the start of touring, the sturdy Emperor of Sand is a carry-over course correction that sees Mastodon unquestionably ascendant again, however modest the upward trajectory. Its rumbling opener, “Sultan’s Curse”, sets a promising tone, both live and on record. From there, the band embarked on a lively, 20-song expedition, furiously paced and consistently engaging, dotted with moments of transcendence and blessed with much more variety overall than I’d expected.

Mastodon took to a deceptively spare stage, featuring, flanking the drumkit and amplifiers, five rectangular pillars arranged equidistant and affixed with an array of rotating spotlights, an oddly Spartan visual contrast for a band with a well-earned reputation for over-the-top musicality. Soon enough the pillars were revealed as LED monitors that, as 1/5 each of a dynamic greater picture, provided eye-popping accompaniment for a procession of songs already touched with more than a tinge of the dramatic, whether manifesting as molten hellscapes, spinning kaleidoscopic vortices, alternately exploding and imploding galaxies, or slow reveals of feverishly rendered comic book monsters. The band felt both focused and freewheeling, and appeared to be having a grand old time. Dailor, whose infamous, four-handed, cascading fills – a sort of spiritual intersection between jazz immortal Buddy Rich and thrash titan Dave Lombardo – were both Mastodon’s first stylistic hallmark and their initial attraction to a then-young drummer like me, has taken on increased vocal responsibility** over the last several albums (bringing the band’s lead singer total to three) and his dual-purpose energy level was especially impressive. Beside a new album contingent*** that comprised almost 2/5 of the show, a battery of songs from popular breakthrough Blood Mountain owned the day, from the eccentric, insinuating “Colony of Birchmen”, to the droning, near-hypnotic “Oblivion”, to the rampaging, aptly named “The Wolf is Loose”. The band (literally) unleashed Leviathan’s massive “Megalodon” near the halfway mark, and practically burned the house down with a pair of conjured familiars from Remission days – “Mother Puncher” to close the set, and “March of the Fire Ants” to close the night. It was a perfect, fiery end, involving, transporting, and incredibly satisfying. Had I the good fortune to see Mastodon in 2002, my heart might well have burst at the prospect of Remission played in total. This was a surprisingly adequate, if delayed, tradeoff.

**In the middle of this writing, I was rocked by the unfathomable news that Chris Cornell, the 52-year-old Soundgarden frontman, had died overnight in the hours following a show in Detroit. Cornell’s majestic, oft-astonishing wail was a rock instrument worthy of all-time consideration, a sort of stealth missing link binding Freddie Mercury to Robert Plant (Cornell/Soundgarden’s final encore, the mighty “Slaves and Bulldozers”, incorporated improvised lyrical snippets from Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying”, or so I’ve heard. I haven’t yet had the heart to listen.) to NWOBHM showmen like Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, and Soundgarden’s thick, nebulous, sub-metallic explorations were a clear formative influence on and artistic beacon to a band like Mastodon, who would’ve grown up on them much the way I did. A bona fide rock star figure born of a culture where D.I.Y. authenticity was king, no singer could communicate gentle melancholy then erupt and make the hair on your arm stand on end like Chris Cornell. A loving farewell and R.I.P. to the literal voice of a generation.

***Though it adheres staunchly to the latter-day blueprint and takes pains to always color within the lines, “Emperor of Sand” is arguably Mastodon’s most emotionally available album – written, as it was, in the wake of devastating cancer journeys taken within the band’s extended family – and still has a fair bit to recommend it. The bulk of its worthy songs made it to the Taft stage, including the buoyant “Precious Stones” and plaintive “Roots Remain”, as well as black sheep “Show Yourself”, a medium-charger so open-faced and borderline poppy that, even though I’ve made my own peace, it proved the final straw for one of my friends, a seasoned fan so disappointed in the state of Mastodon circa 2017 that he sold his pre-purchased tickets in protest after a handful of listens. The Metallica comparison I referenced above is not something I just pulled out of thin air. On this topic alone, I’m teaching the controversy.

“I hung out with all y’all before the show,” proclaimed Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes three songs into his band’s raucous opening set. “Don’t pretend you don’t know who I am.” Indeed, as we climbed Third Street toward the Taft, my friend and I were pleasantly surprised to find Hughes lounging around a gaggle of tour buses, engaged in casual conversation. When we leaned in for handshakes, I said something generic to the effect of, “have a great show tonight.” Our hands still clasped, he responded, “brother, we’re all gonna have a great show tonight.” This review goes to press in the aftermath of the incomprehensible terrorist bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in working class England, which occurred roughly a week after this show. By rights, if any musician should’ve been reduced to emotional ash in the wake of similar tragedy, it’s Hughes, whose EoDM were the target of murderous gunmen in Paris during a coordinated ISIS attack on the city’s cultural sphere in late 2015. No shrinking violet before Paris, Hughes’ notorious joie de vivre seems to have only grown, Grinch-like, three sizes in the many months since, as has his empathy. From blistering opener “I Only Want You” – ably assisted by Mastodon’s Hinds, so closely shorn that I momentarily mistook him for EoDM co-founder Josh Homme – to the strutting, hyper-aerobic “Complexity”, to a joyous cover of Bowie classic “Moonage Daydream” to energetic almost finale “I Want You So Hard” – wherein he led us in the sing-along mantra/chant “the boy’s bad news!” like an orchestra conductor – Hughes owned the stage with his playful, aphoristic banter and restless spirit, a tireless, invigorating evangelist for the communal power of music in general, and rock and roll in particular.

To underscore that prevailing, if unspoken, theme of love and music, of appreciating what we have – and how we’re all in it together – Dailor took to center stage after Mastodon’s set concluded to thank the crowd for a great evening and its overarching support, and also to introduce a special guest, his mom, a cancer survivor of now 40 years. That she got the biggest ovation in a night overflowing with them was only fitting. It was Mother’s Day, after all.

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