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Mastodon – Live at the Aragon

on March 23, 2011, 8:00am

Mastodon have spent their past four albums ascending the metal and progressive rock world to a pinnacle completely of their own design. The band’s distinctively ferocious brand of metal that’s been lauded by critics, teenage headbangers, and metalheads of the old guard alike owes as much to the screaming twin lead work of Thin Lizzy and the stoner punk of the Melvins, as it does to thrash icons Metallica and Megadeth. The Atlanta quartet has set seemingly insurmountable benchmarks for themselves, widening their scope exponentially, both conceptually and aurally, with each successive album.

Crack the Skye is the best and latest record in their catalog, fusing the molten sludge-metal and staggering technicality of their past work with a new-found affinity for Floyd-ian spaciness and multi-suite sagas. While Mastodon are certainly no stranger to concept albums, as they proved in 2004 with Leviathan (a not-so-loose adaption of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick), and again in 2006 with the stellar Blood Mountain (which related a thrilling tale of survival atop a monster-infested mountain), nothing in their previous body of work approaches the ambition, cohesion and flat-out awesomeness of Crack the Skye. Over the course of its seven songs and 50 minutes, the record somehow manages to do much more than make sense of its ridiculous plot (which centers on astral travel, wormholes, and Rasputin) and presents Mastodon’s very compelling case for being the best metal band in the world.

All that said, live metal albums are rarely great. The usual issue with live albums, of any genre, is the feeling of canned theatrics: staged “improvisation” here, canned shout-outs to the crowd there. Some acts edit together tracks compiled over the course of a worldwide tour, as hard rock dinosaurs Iron Maiden did on 2009’s Flight 666, presumably in the hopes of painting themselves as close to perfection as possible. Others aim for an accurate representation of the band’s performances, night in, night out. Additionally, the absence of the spectacle and stunning stagecraft that makes most metal so thrilling in the live setting makes it difficult for many bands to cut their blistering showmanship and improvisational skill to tape without veering dangerously close to musical masturbation, à la Yngwie Malmsteen. Tack on the tight cohesion and technical precision of Crack the Skye, and it’s easy to see why the album’s material might seem ill-suited for release on a live record.

Presumably to put fears of a canned show to rest, Mastodon promised that they were recording a live record, stating that regardless of what transpired on October 19, 2009 at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, the band would release it as their first ever live album. Even the imperfections, such as the poorly mixed vocals on album/set opener “Oblivion”, which seemed to improve only slightly as the night went on, do little to derail the performances. The band’s faithful rendering of Crack the Skye‘s every last note is remarkable, given the album’s complexity, sweeping from the surf-metal solo on “Divinations” and the spacey keys that open album centerpiece “the Czar”, to the crushing 13-minute album finale, “the Last Baron”, all without the slightest of hitches. Their no-frills approach is very apparent in that hardly any of the numbers extend far beyond their original track length.

The biggest change Mastodon underwent on Crack the Skye was a very heavy reliance on clean vocals, instead of the coarse, growling delivery that’s marked all of their past work, a change that certainly had a major part in the quartet’s recent burst into the so-called mainstream (or at least as mainstream as a band whose latest album revisits Czarist Russia via space/time travel). Both on record and in concert, the vocals are a welcome change, acting as a fantastic counter-balance that lends a much wider range of emotion to the band’s music than one could assume. On Live at the Aragon, though, the band (all of whom sing lead at some point, except guitarist Bill Kelliher) strain very audibly to be heard over their own dense, technical racket. Brann Dailor, who is no doubt among the five best drummers in any genre today, has trouble singing over his marvelously complex fills on his sole lead effort, “Oblivion”. Bassist Troy Sanders (who handled the bulk of lead duties on Mastodon’s first few albums) sounds a bit out of his element out of the studio, as do guitarist Brett Hinds’ limp, cringe-inducingly nasal wails, which get to be a bit of a problem by the start of colossal album closer “The Last Baron”.

Even at their most atonal, though, Mastodon’s occasionally discordant vocalists hardly detract from the awesome power of their music. Besides, if you dig Mastodon enough to purchase a live album of theirs, you’re pretty unlikely to take issue with the gruffness of their vocals, or the awkwardly sung harmonies. Any fan of their work shouldn’t miss Live at the Aragon, which comes complete with the band’s encore, which included songs off of each of their four albums, as well as a thrashy rendition of the Melvins’ “The Bit”, as the disc accurately renders one of the best metal bands and albums in years.

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