Live Review: Mastodon, Eagles of Death Metal and Russian Circles at Paramount Theatre 4/15/2017

photos by Matthew B. Thompson (view set)

It is a truly beautiful sight to see a swarm of of black t-shirts filling up the halls of an 89-year old theater. A strikingly atypical one, considering the venue’s usual programming, but a beautiful one nonetheless. Mastodon’s return to Seattle coincided not just with the Georgia outfit’s most focused (and perhaps not coincidentally, their strongest) LP in some time, Emperor of Sand, but with a trip to the storied Paramount Theatre. Notably atypical on a surface level? Certainly, but considering Mastodon’s most affecting album features a conceptual storyline relating an astral plane-traveling child with the suicide of drummer Brann Dailor’s sister, atypical is the speed at which Mastodon do their best work.

Setting up a night of technically dazzling and charismatically-presented metal was a perfect pairing of one band that fits snugly in the former category and another that hits the latter note. The night began with Russian Circles, whose towering instrumental songs wove in and out of the better part of 40 minutes of heavy majesty. The Chicago trio’s latest LP, 2016’s Guidance, is possibly their loosest and, by this writer’s estimate, most akin to what a jam session (albeit a very concentrated one) between Mike Sullivan, Dave Turncrantz, and Brian Cook would sound like in their rehearsal space. This is a very good thing, despite any negative connotations that the word “jam” might have in a musical context, and set a heavy, towering tone for the beginning of the night… one that Jesse Hughes almost immediately did away with once he arrived onstage with Eagles of Death Metal. If it weren’t for Hughes’ overflowing charisma, this would’ve been a jarring transition, but seeing the Palm Desert frontman stop the opening number (“I Only Want You”) three times to ham it up with the crowd is a joy, not least because of the inseparable context of the Bataclan shootings that have and will continue to color EODM’s legacy. EODM’s unhinged, tongue-(barely)-in-cheek riff rock has always been a pleasure that entices, even encourages, a little bit of guilt, so it can be hard to take Hughes seriously when he’s prowling up and down stage with his slicked back hair and suspenders, but when he took a moment a few songs into the set to proclaim that he is doing his “dream job” onstage, it was hard not to smile at the sincerity bursting through the performance. And then a split second later, hip-shaking rippers like “Don’t Speak (I Came To Make A Bang!)” and “Wannabe in L.A.” put Hughes back in full on rock and roll preacher mode – exactly where he’s supposed to be.

To say Mastodon split the difference between those two bands wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it would be reductive. The Atlanta quartet is a unique beast, one of, if not the, most notable metal bands to cross over to a larger audience (with quite a bit of their cred intact, no less) in the last decade. Their highest concept records seem to be their most revered, and their forays away from the Moby Dick- and Rasputin-inspired narratives into more traditional-leaning metal are colored with a distinct sense of humor. This is all to say that it’s hard to box Mastodon into one category – one moment they’ll be singing about being hunted down by forest monsters and then another they’ll be talking about killing the man who killed their goat (and only one of the two is sung with an overt wink.) The continuous thread between it all is simple though – a unique blend of monstrous riffs, knuckle-dragging muscularity, and just enough flair to make all their technical ecstasy seem more fun than masturbatory.

Seeing an LCD screen with a psychedelic squid emerge right as Troy Sanders yells “Smoke dope!” and leading the band into “Megalodon” is certainly a good time, but with Mastodon, the showmanship and the personality are two-sides of the same coin. Walking into a Guitar Center to see some dude showing off the first solo to “Master of Puppets” for the zillionth time is perhaps the worst musical experience this side of Nickelback, but watching Sanders, Bill Kelliher, and Brent Hinds trade off turns shredding guitars (and faces) is the kind of flex you actually want to see. Their solos and interplay never come across as showboating – it’s just how “Bladecatcher”, “Divinations”, and “The Wolf Is Loose” are supposed to be. Britt Daniel once decried descriptions of Spoon being minimalist by saying the band only uses the notes and space they need. Conversely, Mastodon need to take up a lot of space with a lot of notes and that’s what makes them so brilliant. Emperor of Sand, as many have pointed out, brings the band back to an out-there concept (a desert wanderer sentenced to death) paralleling a real life hardship (Sanders’ wife’s cancer diagnosis; thankfully, she’s now in remission). Its eleven tracks, most of which were represented in that night’s setlist, harkens back to the lyrical density of their earlier work while retaining some of the smoother edges from the band’s previous two albums, marrying the last half decade of Mastodon with its first five years with little turbulence. That triumph was no better personified by Dailor, whose performances remain the band’s not-even-remotely-secret weapon. Even a casual Mastodon fan knows Dailor is going to fill every second of space with the right hit without ever veering into Spinal Tap or Tommy Lee territory, but like listening to Kendrick Lamar spit 16 bars or Explosions in the Sky build up a song only to release a floodgate of a crescendo, it’s a pleasure that’s endlessly rewarding regardless of how readily apparent it is. But that’s Mastodon – riffs and huge solos and more riffs and a video of a cartoon dragon during “Magma City” and even more riffs, and a song about killing a whale, and then more riffs until eternity. Atypical, but beautiful nonetheless.

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