Mastodon/Totimoshi @ Melkweg Amsterdam, February 6th 2010

The previous time I attended a Mastodon headlining show was in November 2008, when they played as a three-piece in the Tivoli in Utrecht. “Brother Bill”, guitarist Bill Kelliher, was hospitalized at the time. They did a surprisingly good job, taking into consideration how much their songs usually rely on the interaction between the two guitars.

This time around, the group was more than complete again, with the keyboardist who played on a couple of tracks on their latest studio effort also added to the live line-up. During the current tour, Mastodon performed said album, 2009’s Crack the Skye, in its entirety. Proggier than ever before, the band didn’t know how to isolate just a few chapters of the saga from the rest of the story and fit those into a regular set. Even though they had always managed to distill an interesting mix of old and new songs in the past, it made some sense to me to leave a concept album intact (but weren’t the previous three all concept albums?).

Crack the Skye is a record that needs time to grow. With each spin the listener discovers something new in the intricate layers of guitars, synths, percussion and – yes, at times cringe worthy – vocal melodies. Is it possible to transfer such an album to the stage? Hopes were high.

First, Totimoshi got to warm up the increasingly crowded big hall of the Melkweg venue, ‘the Max’. A band originally from the Bay Area, their sound can be described with references to artists like Black Sabbath, Melvins and Shellac. The pretentious comparison I came up with myself was something along the lines of ‘the child that was born when the lesbian couple of Unsane and Oxbow got Thin Lizzy to be their sperm donor’. They weren’t bad, but not everyone could get into their slow grooves and dragging vocals. The applause they received after about 40 minutes was scant.

After a short break, Mastodon was on. After a short synthesizer intro they started working their way through all of Crack the Skye. Right from the start, songs like ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Divinations’ got a warm reception from the crowd. I wasn’t blown away personally; the sound could have been better and – though very well-executed – the songs lacked something of the power they have on CD. I was under the impression that Mastodon was trying to emulate the sounds of the album too closely, in a forced manner that doesn’t suit them well. The intro of ‘Divinations’ is impossible to play live, for instance, because Brent Hinds obviously can’t play banjo and guitar at the same time. Recorded samples and loops filled that kind of gap. These guys don’t have to act like that! A live version of a song can be a slightly altered one and still be true to the recording, as we’ve seen when they had to play without Bill.

From halfway into ‘Quintessence’, though, Mastodon won me over. The overall spectacle was intriguing. Visuals on a large led screen supported the twisted story line of lucid dreams, out of body experiences and the murder of Rasputin. Psychedelic spiralling forms and black and white movie fragments helped the band to shape their music into the kind of Gesamtkunstwerk some seventies prog bands went for. The twin-necked guitar Brent donned for ‘The Czar’ strongly contributed to thoughts of that decade as well.

Where I’ve gotten used to the new vocal styles on the album, I could’ve done without those during this show. With all four of the original band members sharing vocal duties, only Troy Sanders does a truly reasonable scream and croon. Most notably on ‘Ghost of Karelia’ and ‘Crack the Skye’, where he switched between his impressive Scott Kelly impersonation and the best melodic singing of the night.

When you build a strong musical tension to tell an exciting story, it’s a shame if you break it down right before the climax. Mastodon did just that. Three times. During the intro of ‘The Last Baron’, Hinds walked off stage, messing with amplifiers and guitars and making wild gestures to a roadie. He told the other guys to start all over again, while they’d been trying to stretch the part long enough for him to fix his problems. He happened to have a guitar that wasn’t tuned correctly. After a few failed attempts by the roadie he tuned it himself. “I don’t really know how to play music, I’m just in this band”. The fourth time the band took revenge: they not only nailed the song, but they handled it with the kind of spontaneity that they’d seemed to have lost at certain moments in this show. A well-deserved, yet sophisticated applause was theirs after the thirteen-minute epic.

Still catching breath after the closing guitar solo of ‘The Last Baron’, the crowd was left with another synth-loop for a few minutes, until the group kicked off what appeared to be a completely different concert. With ‘Circle of the Cysquatch’ off Blood Mountain, ‘Aqua Dementia’ and ‘Iron Tusk’ from Leviathan and their Remission-era classics ‘Where Strides the Behemoth’, ‘Mother Puncher’ and ‘March of the Fire Ants’, Mastodon showed that they haven’t gone soft completely. The audience answered with a loud roar that suddenly put the earlier cheers and clapping to shame.

My expectations might have been paradoxical, hoping to hear both a true adaptation of an incredibly layered studio album and an entertaining, spontaneous live band. Mastodon managed to rid me of those contradictory feelings. The show wasn’t flawless, but eventually worked out great. The attempt at an overwhelming and complete experience of Crack the Skye was interesting, and the six song encore proved that a good band, playing strong songs without surrounding theatrical elements, can be at least as moving by its own.

    • Eric
    • February 9th, 2010

    Interesting and honest review.

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