Last Night: Mastodon at the Fox Theatre

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Mastodon, Kylesa, Intronaut
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Fox Theatre, Boulder

Openers Intronaut kicked off last night's metal-tastic bill at the Fox by doing the headliners a big favor: The band played music that was at least superficially similar to Mastodon's, but far less compelling. Which is not to say that Intronaut's fluid prog-metal was bad -- far from it. The band displayed plenty of technical skill, but was able to avoid the common prog pitfall of trying too hard, and vocalist/guitarist Sacha Dunable's hardcore-ish vocals kept the band grounded and gave it a nice grimy angle. On a bill with any band other than Mastodon, Intronaut would probably be a highlight.

Kylesa shares its home state of Georgia with Mastodon, but Kylesa's music is definitely the more Southern-fried -- emphasis on the fried part, as in amps and brain cells...yes, Kylesa played some serious stoner metal, which, in addition to being awesome in its own right, made for a good palate cleanser between the two proggier acts. The band's epic sludge featured the guttural bellow of Laura Pleasants and twin drummers, who greatly heightened the band's impact. Their parts would were often complementary, but when they lined up exactly, as they did on a tribal tom workout near the end of the set, the result was absolutely thrilling.

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And then came the headliners. My mission for myself last night was to try to figure out why Mastodon has become one of the biggest, most successful metal bands in America, and especially why it has become the band that non-metalheads have overwhelmingly chosen to scratch their metal itch. For starters, Mastodon is very, very good at what it does. The band plays long, intricate compositions that never feel masturbatory -- the band's sense of structure, if not its sound, recalls classic Metallica more than it does, say, latter-day Tool. The band also hits as hard as any other act out there today, and if the material on its latest album, Crack the Skye, is a bit -- just a bit -- soft in its impact on record, it had no such problem live.
The band took an unusual approach to its setlist last night, with approximately the first half devoted entirely to Crack the Skye material, and the second half moving steadily backward through the band's catalog (helpfully charted for neophytes by the display of corresponding album covers on the LED screen behind the band). This approach worked really well, actually, as it not only gave the crowd a clear display of how the band has progressed over the years, but also gave the band and the crowd a chance to regress. Mastodon has gotten ever more proggy with each album, so working through its discography backward made the set just get rawer and more brutal as the evening went on, drawing us in with grand drama and sending us back to a place ever more atavistic --which, I suppose, is what the best metal is all about. After a full hundred minutes of nonstop pummeling, the band walked triumphantly offstage. There was no encore.
So why is Mastodon so big? Why were there just as many bros and hipsters as metalheads in the crowd last night? As many new fans as old ones? The band just seems to push all of the right buttons and none of the wrong ones. I kept waiting for my silly-prog alarms to go off, and in that long set of baroque compositions they never did once. The band is epic, but not pretentious; technically gifted, but not wanky; hard-hitting, but not, you know, too scary. And it puts on a hell of a show. Whatever heights Mastodon achieves it will have thoroughly earned.
Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
I'm actually kind of a metal noob, and my taste tends to run more toward the drone/doom/sludge end of things (so Kylesa was actually right up my alley). Random Detail: Brett Hinds looks like the Devil. All other metal dudes trying to look like the Devil, take note: Red hair helps a lot. By the Way: Props to the sound crew at the Fox, who managed to keep Mastodon's sound crisp and clear, with the instruments well-separated, while also making it hurt insides.

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