VIDEO: Mastodon, "Colony of Birchmen" (live at House of Blues)
My Zen moment with Mastodon hit at about the point where the maelstrom of "The Czar, pt. I: Usurper" receded only to be replaced with the falling-down-stairs drum battery and faux Southern-rock riff twang and intentional pick squeals of "The Czar, pt. II: Escape." It was the realization that both what is awesome and what is bogus about this band rest on their ability to fashion dense prog/stoner metal that refuses to be ridiculous, ever. Keeping it classy is a tall order when you come out on stage to play the dense, swirling, epic, 50-minute entirety of your new Crack the Skye (on Reprise), an album that purports to tell of a paraplegic and his adventures with wormholes, astral travels, Rasputin, and Satan.
The band cut a bold figure — especially monstrously tall and hirsute bassist Troy Sanders — but the music was often confoundingly agile, complex, and winding. The obvious comparison here would be Rush, and it was definitely true that (a) the rich synth work that tied together the new album's fugues was very "Tom Sawyer"–esque, and (b) this show was as much of a sausage fest as any time I've seen Geddy and company. I'm assuming that all across the Greater Boston area, thousands of patient girlfriends and wives got a much-needed night off as their SO's donned black XL band T-shirts and crammed themselves into the House of Blues.
What's fascinating about Mastodon is, in part, what's not going on: zero audience interaction. No "How y'all doing tonight?" Nothing. As the projector behind the screen blasted retinas with a bewildering collage of nature and space footage and exotic loops from sword-and-sorcery epics, the band kept their attention on executing the high-wire trickery of Crack the Skye's dense jams. Especially impressive was a knotted series of turn-arounds at the halfway mark of album closer "The Last Baron," a flourish of spindly guitar runs and drum fills blooming like fractals from other drum fills that conjured the over-complicated jazz breakdown of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man." The sum was often bewilderment, and with good reason, as riffs and beats stopped and started at jarring intervals that contributed to the surprising dearth of horn throwing — and also made for one of the most frustrated-looking pits I've seen in quite a while.
It all makes you wonder how a band this idiosyncratic are able fill the cavernous House. The answer is that though their music rewards close listening with its perplexing musical and lyrical themes, it also performs on the surface as dizzying, enveloping, swelling, utterly hypnotic rock. Like the swirling celestial vortices on screen, the music itself defies metal's objective of always galloping forward, shifting the focus of the riffs farther and farther inward. Does this sound like "stoner metal" to you? Because at the end of the set proper (later, they played almost an hour's survey of their older work), as the band walked off stage to the fading last note of "The Last Baron," I felt barely able to stand or speak.