The Metal Apologist – Mastodon, San Jose, 21 November 2009
If you attended the Mastodon/Dethklok/Converge/High On Fire show and you were paying very close attention, you could see the quiet journey of a bright soul led into the black. Basically, I think it’s a case of the proverbial bottom line butting up most obnoxiously against the art of the thing. Now don’t get me wrong – I completely understand that marketing, product placement, and dumb dude dollars are a necessary evil, an engine of the entertainment business. I stopped crying sellout when I realized it’s worth it to make some concessions so you can do your art for a living rather than scoop ice cream at the drug store to keep your integrity intact. And really you have to give some respect where it’s due to the people who do all the shitty work to advertise and provide infrastructure to our fun. But you know, sometimes the cheap commerce side of things sinks its fangs way too deep into the true beating heart of artistic divinity, reminding you that our tolerance veils its nature, haggard and vampiric by the light of the latter.
Let’s start at the top: Brian and I arrived at the San Jose Events Center circa 7pm. Actually it was 7:15pm and I was confused as to why Converge were on stage given that High On Fire were set to go on first. Well, a marginally helpful young man (who seemed genuinely confused as to why I would talk to him) informs me that High On Fire DID in fact go on, hewing precisely to the scheduled 6:30pm start time. Wow. Who made it down here (that is, from the greater Bay Area to South Bay; I assume that’s a decent portion of the audience but I could be wrong) on a Saturday night before fucking dinner time to catch these fellas? I have to remember to reset my internal rock clock for these big venue shows – mercilessly on-time. Also where’s the respect for HoF, these now elder statesmen of the scene? It’s kinda heartbreaking; like when you see 70-year-old men working at Walgreen’s. There needs to be a Musician’s Scene Cred Roth/IRA that you start building up when your band forms so that in 10 or 15 years, no matter how many times Pitchfork or the white belt crowd pass you over, your band is assured teacher’s salaries and mid-size venue headlining tours. Jeez, lest we forget the ironic fact that headliners Mastodon met one another at an HoF show over ten years ago.
On to Converge, who from the moment we arrived were seemingly tearing it up. Let me rephrase that: they were indeed tearing it up but that was not the perception of a plurality or at least a very vocal minority in the audience. I’ve never heard such savage booing for an opening band. They ate it up like pros and I was kinda teary-eyed and inspired to seem a band react so bravely. Their set ended and I really needed to know: what was Converge’s transgression? We asked two separate groups of kids what they thought but they were either mildly enthusiastic about the band or benignly indifferent and… well… I’m a bad journalist because I gave up after surveying .01% of the control population. I didn’t learn much either as the guys we spoke to were also perplexed at this bad reception. For me, the distorted guitars, the gruff vocals, and the massive collusion of bass, drums and guitars forming what we refer to as the “riff” seems like common enough ground for all four bands to…converge upon. So what got everyone’s ire up? I’m the worst judge for this; I’m an artist, not a critic. The thing is that my taste in music is kinda like the positive flip side of the stereotypical mom who says all that heavy metal sounds the same. It isn’t all the same when you get down to the details but for most intents and purposes, on a fundamental level it IS the same. Catharsis through volume, sonic shrapnel, massive emotional bloodletting – that’s what Iron Maiden, Morbid Angel, Godflesh, Opeth, and Emperor (for a few examples) all have in common for me. And apparently if you put each of those bands’ diehard fans all in the same room, the collected will NOT agree on much. My guess: the hardcore-flecked vocal delivery, the scruffy and natural-sounding guitar, the dynamic, not-constant-pitter-patter-of-double-bass-drum-pedals probably equals total turnoff for an audience weened on that perfectly cut 24-carat diamond that is the modern death metal recording. That kind of flawless, Pro-Tooled horse stampede was yet to come. That’s just my theory though I do feel some solidity there. Shit, maybe even I couldn’t have gotten on board with something like Converge if I were a little younger. Well, yeah I could have but if I hadn’t, I don’t know what would have compelled me to actually BOO the band. Hey kids: stop being such fucking townies or risk growing up to realize you’re 40, have experienced nothing more exotic than the cajun taco roll at 7-11, and drive by your high school once a week with tears in your eyes. I might be exaggerating.
Fortunately, I think all those bad vibes got inverted into some extra-keen enthusiasm because we all went apeshit when Mastodon took the stage, my cynical ass included. Seriously though, I had a really good reason. I happen to believe that Mastodon’s Crack the Skye is no less than this generation’s Led Zeppelin IV – epic storytelling enrobed in heavy cinematic rock music that crosses over without pandering; that is, it transcends. Of course, the riffs are still brutal and metal-borne but what I’m trying to say is, for example, you don’t think of Stevie Wonder as a guy who plays R&B or soul or pop – you think of him as something unto himself. His music is obviously rooted in identifiable styles but he doesn’t fit squarely in any of them and eventually he created the Stevie Wonder spot, a kingdom of one. Diehards accused Mastodon of getting too glossy and too proggy with this record, a stance articulated fairly enough in a pretty scathing review via Invisible Oranges. I think Cosmo’s on to something in his analysis if not his conclusions; the band have drifted considerably from their straighter metal roots. However I think he misses the point for though they’ve become less metal, they’ve become convincingly more themselves. Personally I think their early years yielded their safest, least distinct output. In fact, I think this may have been the key to their early success: they baited an audience with simple, satisfying metal, gradually switching in the epic sweep that came to a head with CtS. They’re like your new friend who’s into all the same shit as you (metal and beer) and then gets drunk and comfortable and admits he cried when he saw “Beaches”.
If I ever harbored a doubt that Crack the Skye was Mastodon’s victory lap it was certainly allayed by the bluster with which they executed the album live. As Cosmo Lee points out, what Mastodon lack in overdubs live (and Crack the Skye has a bazillion of them, albeit mostly for textural purposes) they more than make up for in raw power and the sheer charisma with which they wield it. Every one was feeling it too, singing along to every word in this strange double-headed story that intertwines the tragic suicide of drummer Brann Dailor’s teenage sister many years ago with the purported transmigration of Rasputin after his assassination many more years ago. That’s exactly the kind of nebulous, unwieldy semi-story that makes for the best concept album in my opinion, the kind that has a sturdy sense of narrative while giving room to dream.
And dream I did. These immersive sound worlds each inhabit their own compositional logic. Motifs unfold rather than progress, transitions emerge as inevitable results of the riff’s genetic code. This is a story of re-incarnation, of one soul inhabiting seven shells represented by the seven unique yet interconnected musical movements that comprise the record. Mastodon’s serpentine motifs can seem a little top-heavy at times, as though they could have shaved off a note or five and saved themselves some trouble. Yet CtS finds this approach better illustrating the complex landscape of psychic travel – this is, after all, the sound of teenagers transmuting into czars. It’s not all quantum physics either as they eke real dimension by seesawing between the Neanderthal and the abstruse with alchemical deliberation. Exultant, airborne arpeggios are soon dragged down into tar by massive gravitational doom-chords, moving our minds through the spheres via Byzantine sonic architecture.
Five older songs followed Crack the Skye and then just like that, Mastodon were calling it a night. Despite their confidence and swagger onstage, the dudes were downright bashful when they said their thank yous and goodbyes. It was charming in that Southern way. They were clearly humbled by the adulation and dare I say by the music itself, privileged to have made a truly classic album in the vein of old Floyd or Zeppelin. How strange then that the house lights soon came up, signaling there would be no encore. Huh? Now, I’m not a big fan of encores generally; I’m all for a band saying their bit within the margins of a set. I think the margins in this case were a bit narrow though. They couldn’t have played for more than ~85 minutes and as Mastodon were surely the stars of the night, maybe they could’ve languished in the spotlight a bit longer. Right? I guess not. I couldn’t help connecting this unceremonious end with the audience’s reaction to Converge. Was a fickle audience in charge here and worst of all, were the masters of ceremony abiding their whims? Don’t play too long. Don’t play these sounds. Are audiences in 2009 severely allergic to having their expectations challenged?
On to Dethklok, remarkably the world’s second animated band. I found myself in the confusing position of feeling uncomfortable during their set despite being a huge fan of “Metalocalypse”. First off, the live band format really robs the whole Dethklok universe of its charm. Brendan Small’s earnest death metal facsimiles successfully buttress the hilariously clever story arcs of the show. Without those stories, the songs come across as pretty vacant. It’s that same lack of narrative that makes the interspersed animated clips fall flat as well. These focus on banter between the characters, sight gags, and… video game endorsements. So you’re left with a de-fanged disassembly of a musical parody. Really? This is what we’ve been led up to all night? There was something so cynical and disappointing about seeing this after the emotional rush of Mastodon’s set. It was so weird to negate the profundity of their and Converge’s music by serving Dethklok as the final dish. Surely, whoever put this together could have exhibited more class. Now let me say this: I have sincere respect and admiration for Mr. Small’s work. But certainly some deference was in order. It’s so impossibly ironic that three hard-working, blue-collar bands with an astonishing THIRTY-FIVE YEARS of touring between them got lapped for draw by the two-year-old made-up band. More apropos at least if the order had been first cartoon band, then Mastodon. Furthermore, I wondered if Mastodon even needed the pull of a co-headliner or if Dethklok were just padding to ensure turnout. I get that business is business but at the same time, it’s all based on judgment calls so it’s imperfect too. I’m no promoter but I had a feeling that they could’ve drawn the same without Dethklok, that the latter were just a pleasant diversion for most.
Ultimately, I think this situation alienated me a little bit more from seeing live music and I was already a little bummed about live music anyway. My peak musical experience will always be listening to a record in private from top to bottom. That’s where the emotions and dreams really take flight. Everyone goes off about the exhilaration and visceral nature of a live show and I get that but I also can’t forget that I’m there to buy a beer, and buy a shirt, and pay a service charge and really, the music is secondary to all that. One look at this video of Van Halen playing an out-of-tune “Jump” ought to tell you that. I’m skeptical of how dumb crowd momentum overshadows a sense of humor, complete thoughts, and other things that I find valuable in art. On the other hand, you have ear-shattering volume, human energy and interaction, and pretty lights. I like those things. At long last, it’s not the end of the fucking world if the cartoon band brings in the bucks and dumb kids boo the hardcore band, etc. I think these bleak economic times find the more principled folks among us conceding to those aforementioned dumb dude dollars to keep doing what they do. But goddamnit, it’s time for a band like Mastodon to step to the front of the class – headlining arenas, 2-hour sets, rabid fans screaming until they’re hoarse for a five-song encore. It reminds me of something that the band HEALTH said in an interview not too long ago. To paraphrase, they wondered aloud whether a 21st-century band can truly arrive in the classic sense given the all but disintegrated state of the music industry. In Mastodon’s case, it remains to be seen and I wouldn’t rule anything out for their future. Perhaps it’s merely a question of confidence on the part of the band or their management. There’s a legion of people out there who will be very on board with a little more audacity from those fellows. Of that I am sure.