Live: Mastodon at the Wiltern
“One more time!” yelled Mastodon bassist-vocalist Troy Sanders following two failed attempts to begin “All the Heavy Lifting,” a song off the vanguard heavy-metal band's September album release, “The Hunter.” The glitch came midway through its nearly hour-and-a-half Tuesday performance at the Wiltern. It was an oddly disorienting moment: a hiccup that stood out in high relief against the otherwise taut precision the band displayed up to that point.
This was the first date of Mastodon's world tour in support of its new CD. Since the band released its debut album, “Remission,” in 2002, it has positioned itself as the clear heir to Metallica's legacy of pushing metal well beyond expected stylistic boundaries while nurturing populist appeal. Mastodon is currently enjoying its closest thing to a radio hit with the single “Curl of the Burl,” yet per Metallica's example, it doesn't always make it easy for audiences.
The group pummeled through at the Wiltern with no encores, bare-bones stage production and minimal crowd interaction: When Sanders paused before “Blood and Thunder” for a brief though sincere thank you to the fans and opening acts, it proved genuinely startling. The relentless length and minimal pauses of the 21-song set — drawn from each of Mastodon's six albums — made for a sublime endurance test. That feeling was enhanced by the band's grinding focus: The players stared so intently at their fingers on the fretboard, it's curious no one has coined the term “fingergaze” in Mastodon's honor.
It was the glitches that served as a certain sort of relief to the assaultive virtuosity displayed by Mastodon's members (Sanders, guitarist-vocalist Brent Hinds, guitarist Bill Kelliher and drummer-vocalist Brann Dailor). The sound mix stayed muddy for much of the show and Hinds' incandescent soloing often proved strangely muted.
The imperfections rendered the music human in origin — and when the elements coalesced against the odds, the results proved nothing less than thrilling. As “Heavy Lifting” finally gelled on the third try, the packed house chanted along with Sanders' soaring vocals over the spookily celestial thrash and shifting-sands time signatures; that cathartic liftoff demonstrated exactly why Mastodon exists as one of the most crucial — and challenging — acts working today.
Mastodon, which spans manifold textures (punk, sludge, psychedelic space rock, mathcore), evokes prog-rockers Mahavishnu Orchestra and Yes as much as, say, Slayer. Hinds and Kelliher's dual harmony leads dazzled throughout, while Dailor's kinetic, fluid rhythms — eschewing straight-ahead grooves for rippling, thunderous rolls à la Rush's Neil Peart — marked him as one of rock's most inventive percussionists. No one member dominates — and indeed, when they joined in unison together on a single punishing riff on “Crystal Skull,” it proved overwhelming. As such, the Mastodon live experience can become something of a blur, but ultimately there's no other blur quite like it.
-- Matt Diehl
Photo: Mastodon's Troy Sanders with the band Mastodon performing at the Wiltern in Los Angeles on Nov. 01, 2011.