Mastodon, Kylesa, Intronaut
Cat's Cradle, Carrboro
Wednesday, May 13
So, as 2009 heavy metal goes, what’s possibly better than Mastodon’s fourth album, this year’s Rasputin/ Icarus/ black hole/ Stephen Hawking-baiting conceptual expectation breaker, Crack the Skye?
A lot, actually: Though Crack the Skye locks enough riffs, storylines and hooks into its seven songs to have demanded several spins from me over the past three months, it likely won’t break my top five for heavy records this year. Sure, it’s the fourth consecutive great work by the Atlanta quartet, but the year’s first half has been strong for heavy metal, and—relatively speaking—Crack the Skye is somewhere near the rear third of 2009’s beasts. At least to these ears, Brendan O’Brien’s production stifles the sound, reinforcing the album’s monolithic tendencies to the point where its 50 minutes can seem stifled and a touch listless. The songs themselves are strong, but sometimes, they feel like round pegs forced through the square hole of O’Brien’s Train/ Springsteen-friendly Georgia studio.
That said, I don’t know that there’s anything better moving across the country via tour bus and 15-passenger van this year than Mastodon’s exhilarating, exhausting, and expert stage show for Crack the Skye. Touring as the headliner of a three-band bill with Los Angeles’
Intronaut and fellow Georgia metal evolvers Kylesa, Mastodon pushed everything forward to make time for its Wednesday show at Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle. Intronaut began around 7:30 p.m., and Kylesa finished its blistering set before 9 p.m. Less than 20 minutes later, the lights dropped for Mastodon, a quartet augmented for half of its set by a touring keyboardist.
Just before Mastodon ambled onstage, I marveled at the bright onstage video display immediately behind Brann Dailor’s drumkit and joked to a friend that the configuration reminded me of Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark Tour, last year’s one-man multimedia extravaganza in which West played an exiled lover locked in his, uhh, spaceship. Turns out, the quip was more truth than humor: Last summer, West had the courage and confidence to get onstage in front of 20,000 people for 90 minutes and pretend he was a producer, an astronaut, a space ship technician, and a tireless rapper. His charisma for and seemingly blind belief in the show he’d built was both communicative and contagious, making even the set’s lowlights captivating.
Similarly, a vein of welcome foolhardiness streaks through Mastodon’s current multimedia spree: For 50 minutes, the band stood about as still as playing their instruments would allow, acting as the destructively loud score for the drama happening overhead. While the band playing Crack the Skye in full, a bright screen bore violent, hypercolor shots of Rasputin and his foes, all cast amid swirls of cosmic elegance. The band’s execution was enviable, too, as the four-part vocals cut through the room crisply, parts passed around stage with a perfection that suggested meticulous rehearsal.
Warner Brothers worked hard to keep Crack the Skye mostly under wraps until its late March release date. That should emphasize just how brave of a move this was: Many people at the Cat’s Cradle have been hearing this album for, at most, just under two months. Anyone who hadn’t heard it might have spent the whole night wondering what band they were actually watching—the same dudes who had that tune about the crystal skull with that dude from Neurosis on the album with the deer and fire on the cover? What if those folks hated the new ones and decided to let Mastodon know?
I didn’t hear much of that, actually, and my own misgivings with Crack the Skye disappeared soon enough onstage: The guitars defined their own space, and the riffs sizzled in the live setting. Dailor’s drums seemed less like a backdrop and more like a lifeforce. Those who knew the words sang along. Those who didn’t threw up horns and banged heads or stood silent, watching and studying. Honestly, after playing the album and disappearing offstage, Mastodon could have gotten on the bus, called it a night and still have delivered one of the best sets most will see this year.
But they came back for a long encore/short second set that touched on the entire back catalog. Everyone freaked out a little bit, I like to think, because the performances were not only furious but also compact reminders that, since 2002, these four Georgia boys have been—and remain now—mostly perfect.