Having arguably seized Metallica’s mantle as metal’s masters some time ago, Atlantan behemoths Mastodon have been locked in a holding pattern for their last three albums, waiting to be accorded the stadium-rock status enjoyed by their forebears. Their evolution since 2009’s Crack the Skye – easing off on their trademark blitzkriegs to reveal a majestic, proggy underbelly – has provoked some criticism of selling out or going soft, but tonight they proved accessibility has not come at the expense of their ferocity.
All four Mastodons are frontmen, and three of them sing: bassist Troy Sanders has the most Herculean voice; lead guitarist Brent Hinds possesses a bark of purest shellac and facial tattoos precluding a post-rock career in accountancy; Brann Dailor, perhaps metal’s greatest-ever sticksman, could start tsunamis with his pulverising drum-rolls, and sings Mastodon’s more vulnerable, thoughtful anthems. Rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher, meanwhile, is clearly having too much fun holding his Axe exultantly aloft before the baying mosh pit to sing.
Together, the three voices deliver metal’s most distinctive harmonies since Alice in Chains, and an impressively broad stylistic palette, so the opening few songs encompass the ground-shaking fusillades of Tread Lightly, the tune-slaked Blasteroid (perhaps the first rock song since Big Country to feature guitars sounding like bagpipes), and the bleakly puissant Oblivion – each song radically different, but absolutely Mastodon.
All four musicians are fearsomely virtuosic, though never obnoxiously so, and Mastodon play prog with a quicksilver lightness of touch: sudden tempo-changes and complex instrumental breaks abound, plied like pop hooks or choruses, instantaneous little thrills. And the melodies threaded within the melee are of a calibre any postman could whistle – albeit welded to rhythms rocket scientists would struggle to decode.
Closing tonight with three nosebleed thrashes – red meat for the faithful, no doubt – Mastodon straddle the divide between their hardcore roots and crossover future with ease. And when that inevitable breakthrough comes, they seem unlikely to lose the plot like Metallica did so swiftly.