London's O2 Academy Brixton, January 25, 2019
Words: Ryan De Freitas
For just shy of two decades now, Mastodon have been doing their own damn thing in the most imperious of ways. Whether it’s bursting out of the gates bearing an opus far beyond their years with 2002 debut ‘Remission’, taking expansive, progressive metal to stunning new heights on ‘Crack The Skye’ or being one of only two bands formed since the turn of the millennium to win a Grammy for Best Metal Performance (occultish Swedes Ghost being the other) for ‘Sultan’s Curse’ from most recent album Emperor Of Sand, they’re in with a real shout of being the metal band of the 21st century. And when they show up to Brixton Academy, out of album cycle and with the freedom of a near-flawless discography to choose a set from, that particular title is one they seem intent on claiming.
Of course, for all of their undeniable ability and the sheer class with which they’ve carried themselves with there are naysayers, those who see their post-‘Crack The Skye’ efforts, which are, in places, as much carried by a masterful use of melody and some frankly ridiculous hooks as their early material had been by sheer ambition and musicality, as a sign of a band gone soft. They’re mad bastards one and all, no doubt, but they exist. That’s why, when the Atlanta, Georgia four-piece step on stage and tear into ‘Iron Tusk’ from 2004’s Leviathan only to follow it up with a ferocious Remission one-two punch of ‘March Of The Fire Ants’ and ‘Mother Puncher’, the atmosphere reaches an instant fever pitch. Any doubt about this band’s ability to go at it like the good ol’ days are instantly quashed, and anyone who got on board as a result of that later material is given a taste of the fire from which these titans were forged.
But while those throwbacks do draw one hell of a roar from the legion of die-hards in attendance, the difference in enthusiasm for their more recent work is negligible if at all present. In fact, it’s as Mastodon are peeling out a run of ‘Chimes At Midnight’, ‘Steambreather’ and ‘Toe To Toes’ – all from the last five years – that it becomes clear that the level of finesse and true mastery of their craft that they’ve developed over their career, the thing that allows these newer songs to sound just as vital as the ones that have been long-canonised, is the real draw here.
Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher carry their guitars as if they’re simply extensions of their limbs, ripping out passage after passage of pure fretboard brilliance, often while simultaneously singing melodies that go all over the place and back; Troy Sanders prowls the stage, bass in hand, looking like some sort of unknowable stoner warlock; and Brann Dailor… honestly, if there’s a drummer on the planet that looks as much like a king on his throne as Dailor does singing ‘Crack The Skye’ while pounding his drum kit into submission, let us know. ‘Til then, all hail.
The addition of a special guest, Neurosis’s Scott Kelly doesn’t hurt, either. Just as Mastodon have their subjects’ back firmly against the ropes after a barrage of riffs, Kelly is given a hero’s welcome as he joins the fun for the home stretch. For those lucky enough to be here, this is once-in-a-lifetime stuff. Having guested on six of the band’s seven albums, Kelly has become something of a spiritual fifth member of the band, but chances to see them sharing a stage are few and far between and given the added dimension his monolithic growl brings to a closing run of every song he’s featured on, including ‘Scorpion Breath’, ‘Crack The Skye’ and an unbelievable set-closing ‘Blood & Thunder’, that feels like a damn shame. But at this point, that’s just greed talking.
As the final notes ring out and the now-exhausted bodies in the room bleed out into the concourses and streets of Brixton, all the murmurings overheard are ones of pure joy. The general consensus is that tonight was one of the finest Mastodon shows the people of London have ever seen. And while that might be true (even without the inclusion of the thought-to-be undroppable ‘Curl Of The Burl’, ‘Black Tongue’, and the song they won their Grammy for), there’s almost no doubt that if you make it out to the next one, the bar will have been raised once more.