CD Review: “Cold Dark Place” by Mastodon

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The Cold Dark Place EP bears the Mastodon moniker and the members of Mastodon are performing the songs, but this is only technically a “Mastodon” album. Fans still high on Emperor of Sand should temper their expectations. That’s not to say this is a bad album, but it’s markedly distinct in tone and temperament from what one might expect from the band.

The EP was originally conceived as a Brent Hinds solo work. Hinds created the concept behind the album, wrote all of the songs, and collaborated with artist Richey Beckett on the album art. The tracks were recorded during the Once More ‘Round the Sun and Emperor of Sand sessions, but sound little like either album. This is Brent Hinds featuring Mastodon moreso than it’s Mastodon.

Cold Dark Place was inspired by a difficult break up and it strives for a slow, melancholy atmosphere, but Hinds is too much a southern boy to resist twangy solos and funky breakdowns. It makes for some odd and occasionally schizophrenic songs. The single, “Toe to Toes” combines an Allen Toussaint/”Southern Nights”-esque acoustic intro with a chorus largely lifted from the Ozzy Osbourne/Lita Ford duet, “Close My Eyes Forever.” Streaks and flashes of classic and southern rock abound throughout the EP. These four tracks are admittedly closer to Mastodon’s body of work than it is to other Hinds’ projects like West End Motel or Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, but there’s no doubt that Hinds is the dominate creative influence.

Hinds has created a strange and interesting bird with this EP. It’s well worth checking out, but it lives more as a footnote than a follow up. Cold Dark Place will definitely draw interest from diehard fans, but there’s little meat for casual Mastodon listeners.

CD Review: Arcadea – “Arcadea”

Arcadea is proof that Mastodon’s Brann Dailor is a huge nerd. Fresh on the heels of Mastodon’s seventh studio album, Dailor’s side project debut, the eponymous album Arcadea, reveals an unyielding love of proggy, synth-laden rock operas and a fascination with science on both an astronomical and microscopic scale. HUGE. NERD. But this nerdy love of detail and technical attention makes for a pretty trippy tour of the universe.

It’s clear that Dailor’s proclivities make him at least one of the leading forces driving Mastodon away from metal and toward psychedelic hard rock. Arcadea is the stuff of black light posters and planetariums and half-smoked joints. Teamed with Raheem Amlani (of the fantastic black metal outfit, Withered) and Core Atoms (Zaruda), Dailor’s songs are written from the point of view of electromagnetic waves, black holes, and constellations. Nearly every song obsesses with juxtaposing microcosms and macrocosms and casting the clockwork tedium of celestial activity into epic stories. A supernova becomes a march to war across the galaxy for an “army of electrons.” Lyrics like “I’ll split the oceans, I’ll make the mountains melt, Molecular motion rising, Shockwave of thunder felt,” relates the creation of a star as the birth of a primal cosmic god.

Both in form and substance, Arcadea is a perfect throw back to 70s prog rock, but retains a definite Mastodon-esque sound. Despite the synth-heavy melodies and Neil deGrasse Tyson level lyrics, the band maintains a rock savvy aesthetic that never lets the concept overpower the song writing. The resulting album has a creepy sci-fi groove that’s catchy and compelling. It’ll make you want to dust off your lava lamp. Arcadea is a promising project and hopefully won’t be a one-off band that disappears into the cold reaches of space. Whether you’re a Mastodon fan or maybe just a huge nerd, Arcadea offers a lot to love.

For more information on Arcadea, visit their Facebook page and order the album at the Relapse Records website. Want to give it a listen first? Relapse Records is offering a stream of the album, which you can find below.

Mastodon’s Brent Hinds Proposes at Iron City

Although based out of Atlanta, Mastodon’s concert at Birmingham’s Iron City was a homecoming celebration. Vocalist/lead guitarist Brent Hinds is a Birmingham native and his family was in attendance. His mother spent the show hopping up and down, leaning against the balcony and his 90-year-old grandmother sat in a chair on stage and danced with members of both Mastodon and Eagles of Death Metal during the show.

Fans turned out in full force and filled with enthusiasm. The audience packed in tight such that making your way from one side of the venue to the other was a harrowing journey. The crowd met nearly every song with dancing, fist pumping, sing-alongs and the occasional mosh pit.

“You guys are really incredible,” said EODM front man Jesse Hughes. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a reception like this.” Both EODM and Mastodon echoed this sentiment several times during the evening. Of course it’s the sort of canned response that most bands spout at every show, but it felt sincere given the high capacity, high-energy audience.

After Russian Circles warmed up the crowd with a quick opening set, Hinds joined EODM on stage for its first few songs after introducing his grandmother. The band’s feel-good dance rock only contributed to the festive vibes of the night. Hughes strutted around the stage like a redneck Mick Jagger and rocked out with a cover of Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” amid the regular set list. Josh Homme rarely tours with the band and this night, unfortunately, was no different. But the touring band put on an excellent performance and Homme’s absence was barely noticed.

Mastodon’s stage show was no-frills/all business, which is fairly typical for the band. Four vertical monitors were positioned around the back of the stage and displayed dissected, colorful, psychedelic images as the band played. With the exception of the arrays of colored spotlights, the stage lights were kept low to emphasize the colored, whirling patterns. The only other form of theatrics was Hinds’ dancing granny.

Mastodon opened with “Sultan’s Curse” and proceeded to play nearly every track off the new album, Emperor of Sand, during the course of the night. The set was still filled with plenty of fan favorites like “Oblivion” and “Blood and Thunder,” but the new songs received as many whoops and cheers as the established hits. Crowd surfers were a frequent occurrence during Mastodon’s performance but mosh pits seldom appeared, spontaneously breaking out during heavier numbers like “Blood and Thunder” only to quickly peter out by the next song.

“You want an encore?” Hinds asked at the end of the night. The audience was still in high spirits and called for more. “Well how about this for an encore?” Hinds stepped backstage, reached for his girlfriend, Raisa Moreno, and led her onstage. He knelt and proposed to her. It was a bigger encore than the audience could’ve anticipated, a one-of-a-kind show. Hinds’ mom shouted from the balcony while her son and new daughter-in-law embraced. The band didn’t try to follow that with another song.

The concert was an intimate experience shared with fans. It was the sort of show that fans talk about for years. “Were you there the night Mastodon’s guitarist had his grandma dance onstage and then proposed to his girlfriend?” It was a treat to hear the band play the new songs and it’s definitely worth catching this bill on tour, but the remaining tour dates won’t compare to seeing the Iron City show.

CD Review: “Emperor of Sand” by Mastodon

Emperor of Sand is a chrysalis of an album. Like Crack the Skye before it, it’s a harbinger of a new sound. Not that Mastodon ever really stops tinkering with its sound, but the band’s seventh album gives every indication that it’s ready to shed the last of its metal cocoon and fully emerge as a psychedelic, hard rock band. But there’s still plenty of metal to shed.

Like many Mastodon albums, Emperor of Sand is a concept album. It tells the story of a man condemned by a sultan to die in the desert, which is an allegory for facing cancer and the emotions one deals with when learning he or she is going to die. The desert imagery coupled with the inevitability of death is a little reminiscent of “Ozymandias” if the old king knew what was coming.

Sonically, the album follows the trend toward hard rock established on The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun, but some of the softer dalliances are jarring. The single “Show Yourself” has an unusually radio friendly pop aesthetic that may put off longtime fans. It lacks the proggy layers of a typical Mastodon song and the absence of hard edges makes the track feel flat at first blush. But to its credit, “Show Yourself” is an incurable ear worm. Lines like, “You’re not safe as far as I can tell, and I can tell,” burrow deep. It’s the song you’ll catch yourself humming days later. However, “Show Yourself” is something of an outlier. There are moments, flashes, in songs like “Precious Stones” and “Steambreather” that reflect a similar commercial gleam, but as a whole, there’s not another song like “Show Yourself” on Emperor of Sand.

Mirroring the journey from denial to acceptance, the songs get heavier and angrier making for some of the heaviest songs Mastodon has produced in the last eight years. Brann Dailor’s clean vocals dominate the early half of the album, but increasingly give way to Troy Sanders’ growls. Sanders’ harsher vocal are further anchored by guest appearances from Neurosis’ Scott Kelly and Brutal Truth’s Kevin Sharp on the final tracks.

Emperor of Sand hits a sweet spot mid-way through with a trilogy of songs (“Word to the Wise,” “Ancient Kingdom” and “Clandestiny”) that hit an epic pitch, granting a sense of grandeur in the face of a feeble and fearful passing. It’s a sad album and an angry one. One that refuses to go peacefully and fights it out to the end. Something familiar is fading out on this album, but something new and (hopefully) interesting will follow.

Mastodon is currently on tour and you can catch them with Russian Circles and Eagles of Death Metal in Birmingham, AL on April 28th at Iron City. You can find tickets here and a copy of the new album comes with every pair of tickets purchased online.

 

Live Review: Neurosis at The Masquerade

Neurosis is a band best described as a “musician’s band.” It isn’t the sort of band that ever got a lot of radio play. It never filled arenas and, even after 30 years, most of the band members still have day jobs. This is the band that other metal bands come to see. This is the band that inspired the other bands and grandfathered half a dozen metal sub-genres. This is the band that true metal devotees travel from all corners to come see.

Neurosis is also a band that does not tour very frequently. The common business model for most bands is to release an album and then tour, tour, tour in support. But aside from the families and the day jobs, the members of Neurosis also own a record label and perform in various side projects. Neurosis doesn’t tour every time a record is released, it tours when the members have time to tour. All this is to say that seeing Neurosis, especially on its 30th anniversary, is the sort of show that fans will share stories about for years to come, like hippies reminiscing about seeing the Dead play The Fillmore.

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The (unfortunately soon to be closed) Masquerade was packed for the show. Even as opening band, Sumac, took the stage, an impressive number of fans were already milling around the venue. Sumac played loud and slow in typical sludge fashion (one of the sub-genres you can thank Neurosis for), but they were largely forgettable. Perhaps it was just a bad night for the band. Sumac hit all the right notes but its members felt like they were just going through the motions, making for an unenthusiastic set. Faced with such a lackluster performance, most of the audience decided to chat or check out the merch table.

The second act, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth (or BotSC), was able to garner more passion from the crowd. The band is the new project of Tad Doyle of TAD fame, a name likely only familiar to the grungiest of 90s kids. The new band has little in common with its predecessor. Doyle’s Brothers is loud, growling and experimental, like a rabid, angry seas approach to post metal (yet another Neurosis-inspired sub-genre). BotSC played with a fire that was missing from the Sumac set and the audience reaction showed. Despite the slow, droning tempo of the music, the band brought a lot of energy to the stage, creating the perfect lead up to Neurosis’ set.

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At the very least, Neurosis is always proficient and workmen-like in its performances, there’s a standard of quality you can always expect to receive even on an off night. But the show at The Masquerade was something definitely special. The band opened with the relatively soft “A Sun that Never Sets,” but it was delivered with an incredible amount of force. The band’s presence on stage was intense. The audience swayed hypnotically as waves of sound crashed against their guts and washed over them. There were no theatrics save for some colored lights. There was nothing between the band and the audience, but the music.

The members of Atlanta’s own Mastodon were in the crowd, showing up just after Sumac started its set. Neurosis’ guitarist/vocalist Scott Kelly has appeared on Mastodon’s last five albums, so it was no surprise that the band would come out to see a friend play on its home turf. But Mastodon wasn’t backstage or in any special VIP section (not that The Masquerade has a VIP section), Mastodon sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the other fans watching the show.

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Neurosis played a 90-minute set, a strong mix of all its best material. Nothing unevenly weighted in support of a new album. Toward the close of the set, the lights went out and came back up to reveal two sets of toms at the front of the stage. Kelly and guitarist/vocalist/elementary schoolteacher Steve Von Till began pounding out the rhythm to “Through Silver in Blood.” It was a perfect cap to the night. There was no encore, but the audience didn’t leave wanting one. Neurosis provided everything a fan could have asked for. Neurosis is a band that is always worth your time, but this tour in particular should not be missed.

CD Review: Mastodon – “Once More ‘Round the Sun”

Once More ‘Round the Sun builds on the cleaner hard rock leanings of The Hunter.

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Review by David Feltman

Like The Melvins or Frank Zappa, Mastodon is a band that refuses to settle. The band has tinkered and pushed its sound on every release, always looking for something a little better, a little more interesting. Once More ‘Round the Sun builds on the cleaner hard rock leanings of The Hunter, but the album takes a more technical tact with math-y layered arrangements. The sound is every bit as big as it ever was, but it’s lighter this time, airy, like the pink bubble elephants from “Dumbo” rather than rampaging mammoths. (In fact, it’s a lot of fun to watch this video while rocking out to the new album.)

The ever-evolving sound of Mastodon has only served to sharpen the band as songwriters. The tracks take unexpected directions and entertaining detours, giving little warning before becoming viciously heavy or slowing down for some melodic noodling. The lead guitar work enjoys a more featured spot as the band makes a concentrated effort to reincorporate the spacey psychedelics of Crack the Skye on tracks like “Tread Lightly” and “Halloween.” The lighter moments are among the most transcendent of the album, like a moment of weightlessness before plunging back to Earth, but Mastodon never hesitates to get heavy when the song calls for it. Sludge icon Scott Kelly of Neurosis is even called in to close the album with the creepy eight-minute behemoth “Diamond in the Witch House.”

Oakland artist Skinner creates a bad acid trip of an album cover for the band, perfectly encapsulating the feel of the music. If you enjoyed The Hunter, Once More ‘Round the Sun is sure to impress. And if you happen to be on the fence, the good news is you can stream it free for a limited time on iTunes.