Mastodon brought their powerful metal show to Manchester’s Academy, and Getintothis’ Matthew Eland was keen to see how the band’s new material measured up in a live setting.
They’ve been murdered on Game of Thrones and moshed to by Christian Bale in The Big Short.
They’ve endured a litany of personal traumas while selling thousands of albums, arriving in Manchester in support of their seventh amidst severe weather warnings and live broadcasts from grit depots. The steady dusting of snow falling on the journey up the M62 was apt preparation for a band so elemental; all we needed for the complete Mastodon experience was to be chased by a pack of rabid wolves, for instance, or for the motorway to be blocked off by a 100-foot tall psychic sasquatch.
We were keen to observe what would be the state of Mastodon – a band so steeped in expectation and mythology – at the tail end of 2017.
Russian Circles kick things off. They’ve evolved from the twisty, intricate band we remember first encountering almost a decade ago, and they approach things with a broader sweep nowadays. In terms of sheer volume, they make the biggest impact of the evening; the basslines blast across the hall, unbalancing the assembled early arrivals.
Their backlit shadows stretch cross the ceiling as the three silhouettes onstage steer between Mogwai-esque atmospherics and more conventional palm-muted metal grooves. The star of the show is drummer Dave Turncrantz, who goes for full-on tom-centric power to propel them through the set.
Red Fang follow, and bring with them the first chants of the evening. They have a lighter touch than that of their predecessors, helped no doubt by them having actual lyrics, and a conventional, classic rock feel. They also each shake hands onstage before beginning their set, which is rather lovely.
But soon it’s time for the main event. The house lights go down and a lurid green glow emanates from the back of the stage as Mastodon arrive. They begin with The Last Baron, the final track from Crack the Skye; their most ambitious tune and perhaps something of a statement of intent.
Drummer Brann Dailor regards CtS as their finest album; on this particular song, guitarist Brent Hinds, who recently (and perhaps slightly dubiously) claimed to “fucking hate” heavy metal, utilises Pink Floyd style intricacy and shimmering urgency alongside one of the funkiest metal riffs ever, all over the course of 13-odd minutes.
Which makes the cuts from latest album Emperor of Sand all the more unusual. The duelling guitars and unusual structures are sacrificed to bring Dailor’s more melodic vocals to the fore; the focus is now very much on the lyrics. Kudos to them for trying something new – it certainly adds a bit more dynamic range to the set as a whole.
But it really suffers in comparison with how unhinged and inspired something like Bladecatcher from Blood Mountain sounds, especially when placed in such close proximity. More cynical observers might be tempted to suggest the new direction represents a push for Metallica-style wider recognition, but those in attendance probably aren’t there on the strength of their more radio-friendly fare. That said, there’s nothing inherently bad about the new music – the songs sound much better live than on record – but they all adhere to the same formula. Solid, mid-paced rockers.
The new album doesn’t ebb and flow as much as earlier efforts; nothing comes close to conveying the panicked urgency of Circle of Cysquatch or the grim resignation of Joseph Merrick.
Indeed, the older songs are the most well-receieved – two each from Blood Mountain and Leviathan – and they’re accompanied by some seriously hallucinagenic, stability-threatening visuals. Blood and Thunder ends the night, and then, instead of an encore Dailor ventures from his drum stool to the front of the stage to regale the crowd with a bizarre psuedo stand-up routine, where he reveals that their friend Ivan (“The Terrible”) has just broken his ankle in the mosh pit and that he ought to spend the next 8 weeks of recuperation watching youtube videos on “how to mosh properly“. Poor Ivan: if he was the same man I saw on oxygen on the grass outside, surrounded by paramedics in the snow, I doubt he was in a position to enjoy this vicarious moment of fame.
Mastodon, then: constrained by stimuli both internal and external, trying to plot their next course through a sea in which they’ve already had unprecedented success. Eager to transcend the boundaries of their genre, hamstrung by their earlier success, and yet still an electric and intriguing live proposition.
I crowd surfed for the first time last night at Mastodon. It was one hell of a show, for real Manchester crowds are crazy.
— Megan (@fordym_) December 10, 2017