The Wolf is Loose
A couple of weeks ago I was at the Dillinger Escape Plan gig in Brussels, sipping a Stella Artois whilst two hardcore dudes with tats on their skulls kissed each hello on the cheek. Now I’m sipping a pint of John Smiths at the Mastodon gig in Manchester whilst two local lads discuss how many pies Man U striker, Wayne Rooney, eats.
It’s not only the people and the place that are very different. For two bands that have shared stages and studios, the gigs themselves are different beasts. Dillinger played a tiny club, Mastodon one of Manchester’s bigger venues. DEP are like ADD kids unable to keep still or off their equipment or out of the crowd, whilst the Mastodon boys are a pretty static bunch concentrating on getting every note out right.
Mastodon walked out to a theatre already chanting their name. In the low lights, they began strumming Oblivion, the opener of their latest album. As one of the success stories of the modern underground, Mastodon can afford an intricate film package on a large screen behind them. The visuals combine computer animation and live action of Rasputin and invalids. It touches Tool-like visual territory. I’m talking about Tool the band. I’m not calling Mastodon a bunch of tools. They seem like nice enough boys.
Drummer, Brann Dailor, kicks off vocal duties, followed by bassist, Troy Sanders. Within the minute guitarist, Brent Hinds, launches into the chorus vocals, and begins the competition with Dailor to see whose voice sounds more like Ozzy Osbourne. It wasn’t only the band that was singing. I haven’t heard as much crowd singing along since the Alice in Chains gig back in London a few months ago. Who would have thought that Mastodon would have become a sing along band? I mean try singing along to the sludgy metal of the Remission album.
The band proceeded to play the entirety of their latest album, Crack the Skye. The thing that got me about the performance was the groove in it. I just wanted to move. We all know that Mastodon can crush you with sludgy heaviness, but they are now also masters of proggy groove and the sing along chorus. It’s like stadium rock – except good and well… not in a stadium.
Banjo led into the next couple of straighter rocky numbers, Divinations and the Quintessence, before Hinds breaks out a double-neck guitar for the no-holds-barred prog of the Czar. When you break out a double-neck guitar you’re no longer worried about whether people think you’ve slipped into prog rock excess.
I grew up thinking that prog rock was an evil of self indulgent excess that punk rock had thankfully killed at the end of the 70’s. In my head, prog was a brother to 80’s guitar wank… music made by people more concerned on playing something technically difficult rather than something of substance or value. Sure it’s hard to play. Sure there’s a shyte load of notes. But it doesn’t mean anything. And who wants to listen to something so wanky?
But my opinions on what was and wasn’t pretentious changed as I started listening to the more experimental and noise-y works of Sonic Youth, Mike Patton, the Melvins and Neurosis. Then as I listened to the more technical metal of bands like Meshuggah and Dillinger, I learnt that there were bands they could play highly intricate and complicated music without having one hand on a keyboard and the other hand tugging on their c0ck.
Mastodon always had lots of different parts/sections in their songs. However their music has become less heavy and more progressive, more melodic with each album. Now you’d have to say that their latest effort Crack the Skye isn’t really a metal album, so much as a prog rock record. A lot of people have climbed aboard as Mastodon has developed. However some ”true” metal fans have disembarked. Feck these people. Remission is a good album. Leviathan is a great album. But Crack the Skye is the most intricate and cohesive album that they’ve put together… and they are able to reproduce this awesome album live.
The band continued with Ghosts of Karelia, before my favourite track off the album, the title track, Crack the Skye. This Neurosis-esque track shows a glimmer of the old heaviness. It chugs along until the crowd belts out the cathartic chorus: I can see your pain; it’s written all over your face…
6 songs and around 45 minutes into the set, Mastodon started the final track off the album, the 13 minute epic, the Last Baron. No riff was left in the closet. 13 minutes of prog? Would 17-year-old me have walked out at this point? No he wouldn’t have. I don’t think anyone could have been bored or lost in excess in this song or any other part of the night. Every note, every riff, every solo and every part served the song. This wasn’t notes for notes’ sake. Like the crowd, I was with Brent Hinds on every note. I was immersed in the song. At times I was grooving, then I was singing along and then I was banging my head.
As the band left the stage to a massive roar, the touring keyboardist went into some very, very 70’s synthy sounds. I felt a bit sorry for that keyboardist. He spent his whole night in the shadows at the side of the stage. It reminded a little of the Screaming Jets who used to hide the keyboardist off stage. But then again Screaming Jets were kinda shyte and this guy gets to tour with Mastodon – who are kinda awesome…
When I decided to head up to Manchester, the first thing that came to mind was the “Madchester” music scene of the 80’s. Madchester is the story of New Order, the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses, Factory Records and the Hacienda. It’s the story of awesomely poor management, drug fuelled excess and great muzak.
I’ve heard accounts of how some people in the UK’s first exposure to ecstasy was when the Happy Mondays front man sold them a pill. And then of course there is the Mondays record that brought down an entire label. They spent so much of their recording budget on cocaine in the Caribbean that they subsequently ran out of money to record any vocals… But there aren’t any remnants of the scene left to visit in Manchester. No Hacienda night club. No Factory Records. And apparently no one wants to talk about Madchester. I guess it’s like talking grunge in Seattle. Like heroin, it’s so passé. Crystal meth is the way of the future.
Still, Manchester is, unexpectedly, my favourite UK town that I’ve seen. I would still probably prefer to live in London for all the gigs and the ease of travel to Europe – but Manchester has its own funky vibe and there isn’t the massive tourist surface like in central London.
I had heard that it was a rough town, and I was expecting a smaller, lesser London. But Manchester has its own identity. There is still a rich history clearly visible from Roman ruins (albeit not the most impressive/extensive you’ll see in Europe) and the massive (and impressive) science and industry museum, showing off Manchester as the first industrial town in the world.
More exciting than the history is how Manchester has developed its own modern and funky vibe – and how it is has built this vibe out of its history. Old buildings have been converted into pubs and clothing stores. I stayed in the Bohemian area (I was worried that “bohemian” might be code for gay before I got there) and there were 3 good CD/vinyl stores within 50m. What more could you ask for? As Tim Rogers always told me, all a man needs is a good record store and a decent pub…
… and you’re never going to go thirsty in Manchester. In the Bohemian, Soho-esque, area, there are all kinds of trendy/funky bars. There are TV themed bars, and bars that have been recovered from what looks like very rough old haunts. In the uni district there are bars made out of old theatres. Elsewhere there are traditional British pubs serving the local real ales, and there was even a completely subterranean bar. What was that place before? A public toilet? Maybe the bar was at a converted urinal. How efficient.
After a day of stomping Manchester, I rested my feet and enjoyed a refreshing pint at a uni bar. I then strolled a few blocks over to the Manchester Academy. It’s a mid size venue, probably slightly smaller than the Thebby, back home. It’s a very modern place – from the outside it’s a mass of glass. There are no complaints from my end though – it has good sound and reasonably priced beer. Try finding a decently priced beer at a London venue.
Totimoshi boarded the stage half an hour after punters were let in, and opened up with a very White Stripes-y instrumental. But most of the set seemed to be influenced by a post-punk, pre-grunge sound. Lots of low end, murky guitar riffs. I enjoyed it.
20 minutes after Totimoshi’s final note, Mastodon took us on the Crack the Skye ride for an hour. After a synthy interlude, Mastodon returned for a 20 odd minute set of sludgy highlights from the previous 3 albums.
The second set started with Circle of Cysquatch, from the Blood Mountain album. Circle of Cysquatch is a personal favourite of mine as a microphone with a robot sound effect is used for 30 seconds on this track… and then that mic sits there unused for the rest of the night. It’s a bit like the gong behind Lombardo at a Slayer gig. They lug that thing around the world for one hit at the end of Seasons in the Abyss every night.
As they reached further back in their discography things got heavier and sludgier. While these lads have spread their wings into the prog rock world, they definitely haven’t lost their ability to bring the heavy. They took deep cuts from Leviathan and Remission – it wasn’t case of playing the old favourites Blood and Thunder and Hearts Alive. They wrapped up proceedings with the awesome riff of Crusher Destroyer. I’ve still got that diddly-diddly riff in my head.
Mastodon didn’t leave anything in their bag of tricks tonight – from flawless prog rock of their current phase to the sludge heaviness of their stoner metal history. I look forward to getting back up to Manchester to see the town beyond a packed weekend’s touring, and I can’t wait to see what Mastodon bring us next.