Mastodon releasing an album of themselves performing live nowadays makes about as much sense as Dragonforce doing the same thing... Oh wait.
Here's the thing, I love Mastodon. I'm probably always going to. I saw Mastodon perform in person at only one show, and it was during the 2004 Jagermeister Tour in Worcester, MA. They were opening for Slayer and Killswitch Engage. (Unfortunately, I couldn't get any of those kids to sit down for Killswitch.) Mastodon had just released Leviathan, arguably their greatest album to date, and during their set, they played songs from that album and their face crushing debut, Remission. I had heard of Mastodon prior to the show, but wasn't really convinced of their greatness until that moment I watched them perform. That night, I walked away a fan. Musically, Mastodon is an excellent live act. They hit every note of every solo with effortless precision, and their drummer Brann Dailor is one of the best modern metal snare smashers with all of his fills and jazzy flair.
When Mastodon started to migrate away from the growls and screams of a typical modern metal vocal style, and began cleaning up their vocals for Blood Mountain and their latest, Crack the Skye, I still found a lot to like about them. Both of these were phenomenal albums. It was all still incredible music, even if it was much more radio friendly than their prior works. On both of these studio albums, the singing was perfect for their sound. Brent Hinds' southern twang matched the eerie sound of every song, as did the deep, heavy-winded howling of Troy Sanders along with the inevitable heavier progression of each track. Even though their sound changed sufficiently enough for people to call them "sellouts" I saw it more as them maturing as artists than anything else. Maybe that's a fanboy cop-out defense, but I'd rather be that guy than the typical defender of the old stuff any day.
When Mastodon 'cleaned up their act', so to speak, their rise to greater and greater fame was inevitable. They were the cover story on everybody's rock magazine, started opening for bigger and bigger rock groups, and became increasingly less capable of walking into a bar without being hassled by douche fans. Everybody seemed to want a piece of Mastodon and then some. Then, the band finally reached that peak. They performed live in front of millions of viewers on CBS' Late Show with David Letterman. I tuned in on that episode with eager anticipation to watch my favorite prog rockers rip America a brand new asshole. This is what I saw instead...
My girlfriend walked into the room and was all "more like Mastodon't". I barely had the strength to even hit her, I was so upset. This really sucked. What happened to the band I saw destroy the stage a couple years back? I'll admit, musically, everything seemed spot on. Vocally, however, Mastodon sounds like a pack of drunken frat boys crooning along to their favorite Dave Matthews track while speeding in a Jeep Wrangler. The guys in Mastodon couldn't sing clean for free intercourse. They couldn't hit one of their own notes correctly even if a terrorist had a bomb strapped around the United States president and was all like "Sing your song right or America gets it." We all know the current president is actually a terrorist, so we don't have to worry about this kind of situation, but rhetorically speaking, we would be screwed.
So when I heard about Mastodon's new live album, Live at the Aragon, my member all but retracted into my body. That's like career suicide. I think when a live band performs up to par, their music on stage can be even greater than what you would hear on their studio albums. A live album by a band like Iron Maiden for example, is well worthy of a fan's purchase along with their most iconic full length releases. Every song is bursting with raw energy, fueled by the roar of the crowd and the excitement of the band members bringing it to them. When Mastodon performs their modern music on stage, it sounds fat and winded. The band members have no stage presence as they stare attentively at their fretboards like something out of a high school talent show. They stand as stationary as the microphone stands in front of them with the occasional head banging once one of them remembers they're still in a metal band. Here's a sample video of what we should expect from the Live at the Aragon DVD with a performance of Ghost of Karelia:
A vast improvement over the David Letterman performance by far, but compared to a sample from the live DVD The Workhorse Chronicles several years prior, there's hardly much of a comparison:
It seems possible that older age could be the culprit here. The guys in Mastodon are just about 40, and they tour a lot more than most metal bands, but we're talking maybe a difference of 5-6 years here. Is musical maturity felt in your back and your hips as well as your sound? A lack of stage antics aside, Bassist Troy Sanders makes little to no effort in masking the fact that singing this way physically hurts him. It sounds about as painful to me as it it looks for him. Frontman Brent Hinds singing live sounds a lot like this stray cat that used to hang around outside my place, moaning for handouts, but was too butt ugly and mangy looking to get any. One moment of weakness, I put an open can of tuna outside, and before you know it, I had Brent Hinds scratching my window and singing The Czar at 3 o'clock every morning looking for some more goddamn tuna. Cold buckets of water and vicious neighbor dogs did little to phase him. Brent Hinds was hungry.
Live at the Aragon doesn't come out on CD and DVD until March 15th, but if the available previews of Oblivion and The Ghost of Karelia are any indicator of how the rest of the album is going to sound, I would advise you to pass on this one. Although it's possible they may perform some of their classic singles in all their guttural glory, the album advertises that the band is going to perform the Crack the Skye album in its entirety on stage. I don't know how else to tell you guys this, but every time Mastodon performs any song from that album, it sounds horrendous. Despite how much I actually liked Crack the Skye, and regardless of how well the band performs it instrumentally at any given show, I just can't find it in myself to get over their inability to sing any of it. If they have the spare cash for all those Fenders, Gibsons, Mesa Boogies and Marshalls, I don't know why a band like Mastodon can't drop a dime on some quality vocal lessons. Christ knows they need it, and until they make the investment, or start death metal growling like they are truly capable again, I see no need to support the band by buying a live album that will be really hard to listen to.
I look forward to their next studio effort, and all the vocal touch ups that will come with it.