Mastodon South Side Music Hall, Dallas Tuesday, October 21, 2014
My wife does a thing with our son to get him to try new food. You remember what it was like being a kid and having a new food forced on you. What is this intruder on the side of my plate? Why would I eat this? It's not made from potatoes. It's a weird color.
What my wife does is simply put the alien food on his plate, and he doesn't have to touch or even acknowledge it. He's just getting used to it. He's never allowed to say he doesn't like a food. It'll be on his plate three or four times before he tries a bite, and by then he's used to it being there. It's genius, and it almost always works. It's not that he doesn't like a food; he's just not used to it yet.
This is exactly how I feel about the new Mastodon records.
The common depiction of Mastodon by lazy journalists is as the "saviors" of metal, because they're a metal band they've heard of. Metal doesn't need a savior, it's doing just fine, but there can be no doubt that Mastodon are one of the premier metal bands of the 21st century. So brilliantly did they explode onto the scene with Remission, Leviathan and Blood Mountain that there was no ignoring the fact that, not only were they writing very good metal, they were writing it at the same time as using their songs to defy the metal cliches that cause the media to dismiss the genre as a serious form of music.
Songs that were rolled out last night like the blinding "Aqua Dementia" meld three or four recognizable metal conventions into one track of breakneck twists and turns that intrigues and surprises as much as it pounds with a great purpose. The furious, intricate and delicate instrumental "Bladecatcher" demonstrated that Mastodon would be able to hold their own as musicians in any company. "Blood & Thunder" is simply the most complete metal anthem of the last 10 years.
So what's up then with Mastodon's last two albums? 2011's The Hunter saw the harsher vocals of bassist Troy Sanders often replaced by the 1980s metal croon of drummer Brann Dailor, removing two of the band's most potent weapons in one fell swoop. Dailor is one of the most complete drummers in the business, but there's no way he can sing and play the fill-heavy backroads of early Mastodon. So to incorporate his vocals, the drums have to be calmed down a bit.
Furthermore, while the relentless arpeggios of guitarist Brent Hinds remain the most recognizable aspect of Mastodon's work, much of the drop-note thrash of the first few albums has been replaced with a more considered power chord-heavy approach, which gives the music a greater breadth (and, I imagine, a wider appeal) but stops the music kicking you right in the fucking head, to use the scientific term. Put it this way: I am terrified of the band that wrote "Megalodon." I would not mess with them. I would instantly give them my wallet. The band that wrote "The Motherload," not so much.
But like I said, I'm just not used to it. There's flashes of genius in there, and the last two albums have contained tracks that are up there with Mastodon's best, such as recent cuts from last night's show, "Black Tongue," "High Road" and the dreamy wooziness-meets-thrash of "Chimes at Midnight," which is the most interesting song they've written in years.
Mastodon are, in fact, so very good at what they do that I assume the problem is with me, as much as plodders like new album tracks "Aunt Lisa," "Ember City" and "Once More Round The Sun" bore me, even live. There's none of the fire, the smoke or the mayhem of the Mastodon I love in there as far as I can make out, but they're still on the edge of my plate. Maybe they need to stay on the edge of my plate for a bit longer yet, and maybe then I'll get used to them.
Closing the set last night at South Side Music Hall with a trio of "Megalodon," "Crystal Skull" and "Blood & Thunder" is a reminder to me, though, that Mastodon can just play whatever the hell they want, as long as they keep playing me tracks off Leviathan and Blood Mountain. Dailor closed the night on a sombre note, dedicating the outro music "Pendulous Skin" to Mastodon contributor Ikey Owens, who died last week while on tour with Jack White. Owens, another musician who beguiled and intrigued while showing almost immeasurable skill in the performance of his work, passed far too soon. There's plenty of life in Mastodon yet.