Heavy metal is full of daft ideas. From Iron Maiden singing songs about the genocide of the Native Americans whilst screaming like their bollocks are caught in a mangle, through Judas Priest’s superb “I’m not gay in all this leather and this mustache isn’t a coded message that I like a bit of the other, honest” USP to Metallica’s “We’re hardcore metallers, us, we’d never shop at Armani. Doh!”. But some of the greatest daft ideas in metal recently have come from dumb-but-clever specialists Mastodon. A concept album based on Moby Dick as a metaphor for touring? Check. A concept album about a mountain filled with ravenous beasts that drain the blood of anyone that climbs it, as a metaphor for joing Warners? Check. A concept album about Rasputin, astral projection, quantum physics and black holes and lord only knows what else, as a metaphor for, oh Jebus, I don’t know? Check. All albums filled with thundering riffs, growling, psychedelic interludes, free-jazz inflected drumming, more arpeggios than you can shake a 12-string guitar downtuned to C at; yep, check all those.
I love Mastodon. They distill everything that has been great in heavy rock in the past twenty years and turn it into a huge, ornate, massively complex yet brutally simple monster. They delight in twisting songs constantly, changing time signatures, keys, anything to unsettle you or make things more interesting (see, Midlake?). They’ve become, over the past few years, the go-to band for chin-strokers who want to rock out. Like me.
So, the prospect of seeing them live, playing all of 2009’s “Crack The Skye”, got me more excited than any other gig so far this year (yep, more than Pavement reforming). And it’s fair to say they didn’t disappoint. First off, the crowd was as diverse as you’d expect, given the band’s status as the Pitchfork-approved metal band of the day. Teenagers with Mastodon t-shirts (suprisingly polite, too), indie kids, grown up old codgers like me muttering about “In my day this whole place would be a mosh pit”, and the occasional nutter (I’m looking at you, tall bloke in the red t-shirt)1. All were united during some of the heavier moments, nodding their heads in unison.
Launching into “Oblivion”, one thing was clear. Mastodon rock. Despite a slightly muffled sound (expecting their recorded sound to be reproduced live was asking a bit much), their rampant riffs came rampaging through the crowd. Sure, you’re never going to get Brett Hinds’ intricate guitar playing reproduced as clearly live as on record, but what the live experience lacks in clarity is comfortably replaced by the sheer force of their riffs.
The riffs, and the noise. At first, I thought it wasn’t really loud enough, until I noticed the bottle of water in my hand vibrating. Still, what’s a metal gig if not loud? Wasn’t as if I’d come to watch Norah Jones. Next up came “Divinations”, and this too rocked like a herd of very, very angry buffalo. Buffalo angry with you. “Quintessence” followed this, and was ludicrously good. The speed at which Brett can play his arpeggiations (sic) is mind-boggling. Now, some people criticised Mastodon for being too “poppy” on the opening three tracks on “Crack The Skye”, but when they are this good, who can blame them? The visuals – a largely black-and-white movie of the album, featuring Rasputin, Hell, starfields, psychedelia, and all sorts of silent-movie tropes – were stunning. Though they didn’t exactly do much to help decipher the lyrics.
The set then dove into the more psychedelic/grunge/metal/stoner rock of “The Czar”. 10-minute long treatises on the Russian revolution have the potential of being, frankly, dull; even the sight of a twin-necked guitar didn’t stop this from rocking. As did the rest of the set; the more traditional metal of “Crack The Skye” was simply brutal. Much of the crowd busied themselves by going mental, and the rest spent their time doing the universal hand signal of metal. “The Last Baron”, heavily influenced by Kyuss, proved to be a superb closer.
The band went off, leaving the keyboardist onstage to make some ominous sounds. A few moment later, they rejoined the stage and piled into “Circle of Cysquatch”. This second half of the set was made up of tracks from their earlier albums. No “Bladecatcher” or “Colony Of Birchmen” sadly, but this far heavier material rocked like a bastard. Released from trying to decipher what the hell “Crack The Skye” was all about, I found myself drifting into that wonderful blissful state that comes from seeing a truly great band. The noise, the riffs, the sheer power of the music made me forget everything other than being enraptured. Looking around the crowd, I wasn’t the only one.
The band thanked everyone profusely, and looked goddamn happy as they walked off. Us? We left the Roundhouse grinning like total idiots. I wanted to immediately listen to the whole of “Crack The Skye” again (and am listening to it typing this). I tell you what, this lot are special. Take any preconceptions about metal and cast them aside; their more accessible material off the album is easier on the ear than much of Muse’s recent output. Some of the more hardcore fans might not think that’s a good thing, but I don’t care. This was the best live band I’ve seen in some time, and I’ll be at the front of the queue for tickets next time the rock up in London.
1 And thankfully, no-one talked during the quiet bits. Not that they could, as the quiet bits were still pretty damn loud. But they didn’t even try.