Mastodon is serious about music. No, really, they are serious. This is the main thing that struck me about Mastodon’s show last Monday at First Ave. Playing in front of a packed house of revelers, none of the members of this critically acclaimed metal quartet were concerned with looking good or acting cool or saying anything clever or even making a personal connection with the audience that I find so rewarding at live shows. Maybe I’ve been missing the point: it’s about the music.
Drummer Brann Dailor, guitarist Bill Kelliher, bass player Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds powered through an hour of songs with barely a breath between tracks. At one point Hinds must have taken a drink because I saw it spray out as the lyrics erupted from his mouth. While Sanders played and sang with a sort of urgency I expected, Hinds looked as if he was giving birth to the vocals as he pushed them up through his chest with the look of concentration and struggle on his face. It was clear that these guys were here to perform for us, no less and no more. And they were serious. Kelliher, who was right in front of me, looked as though he was out for a Sunday drive as he ripped through songs like nobody’s business. He would occasionally look up from his guitar or put one of his feet up on his monitor speaker in a stance that said ‘This is me. This is what I do.’ The whole show was a refreshing atmosphere music appreciation devoid of the hipper-than-hip hipster attitude that so often fills up First Ave. Fans and band alike were there for the music.Ultimately the show is just a snapshot of a much larger picture, including my own discovery of Mastodon and the flurry of praise that has surrounded them the last six months. Of course to imply that Mastodon was “discovered” this past year would be wrong. Mastodon has been around for almost 8 years and has a loyal fan base that is either loving the much-deserved attention that the band is getting or hating the popularity that is bringing in fans like me. However, I think it is significant that people like me, who are not your traditional metal fan, gravitate towards Mastodon despite genre trappings.
Blood Mountain exploded on the music scene like no other. Anyone paying attention in September found the CD hyped at almost every corner. I listened to the geek-wad duo on Sound Opinions gush over Blood Mountain and then I turn around and read an interesting musing by friend and mentor Martin Wong on his blog about metal and Mastodon. After spending a week with the CD, I could see what the critics were talking about: from the rapid-fire drum intro of The Wolf is Lose, Mastodon sounds like a band unleashed but not without a certain measure of undeniable dexterity. In the end, it was Martin’s comments that stuck with me. His analogy that metal is the new punk has a certain ring of truth to it. Punk has been corporatized in mass media just like so many things that start out anti-establishment but get sucked into the money-generating machine. Metal, in all its different forms, still has an air of authenticity. It is firmly grounded in working class roots with very little pretenses. Except for Metallica’s anti-Napster stance, you rarely hear of metal bands standing on any sort of soapbox. (Except crazy right wing Ted Nugent who wants to shoot everybody with a bow gun and just negates himself by being an idiot.) The suits simply don't see a commodity in metal. Like Martin says, it is really hard to imagine metal being ripped for a deodorant or VW commercial. (Or is there a commercial that uses Crazy Train?)
Of course the praise for Blood Mountain reached a fever pitch at the end of the year. NYT critic Ben Ratliff epitomized Mastodon’s status by including Blood Mountain in his jazz-heavy top ten list. But it didn’t stop there. The local press went a little jolly bananas on the eve of the February 5th show. Both the City Pages and the Star Tribune laid out red carpets for Mastodon in the form of congratulatory A-list write-ups. As much as I believe it is all well deserved, there does seem to be a bandwagon that people on jumping on. Top it all off with a Grammy nomination for Colony of Birchmen for Best Metal Performance. To what end, we will have to wait and see.
(Check out friend and co-rocker Joe Tompkins review of the show here.)