There’s a winning humility to Mastodon. Bassist Troy Sanders opens the show by silently saluting the pit with devil’s horns; drummer Brann Dailor closes it with an earnest post-gig spiel in praise of their hard-working road crew. In between, there’s plenty of on-stage heroics – Sanders ending songs by triumphantly holding his bass aloft; guitarist Brent Hinds rabidly soloing by the stage’s lip – but mostly they keep their heads down, focused on the often furiously complex music.
Ego, then, is not much of an issue. This is the third tour running they’ve played Brixton Academy. A more career-oriented group might get antsy in the face of such apparent box-office stasis, but the gnarly Atlantans seem supremely comfortable in their niche. They’ve regularly crashed the Billboard Top 10 since their fourth album, 2009’s Crack the Skye, which tempered their furious progressive thrash with classic rock flourishes, but was by no means a compromise. Perhaps mindful of the identity crises that plagued Metallica after the crossover success of their 16-times-platinum Black Album, Mastodon prefer to nurture a faithful cadre of diehards rather than to convert sceptics.
Certainly, tonight’s set is hardly aimed at the uninitiated, opening with Crack the Skye’s epic climax The Last Baron, a marathon 13 minutes of lunatic Zappa-meets-Crimson progishness that’s as Marmite a moment as exists in the Mastodon discography. But even at their most extreme – say, the brutal nosebleed thrash of Bladecatcher – there’s precious little sonic nihilism to Mastodon. There’s too much joy in the onslaught of crescendos, the irresistible groove of Dailor’s heart-stopping fills and rolls, and occasional multi-part harmonies that come off like Crosby, Stills and Nash with face-tattoos and flying Vs.
Named after the prehistoric colossus, Mastodon might play big music, but they’re masters of melody as well as might, with hooks hammered into the hides of their epics and pocket epics. A volley of songs from new album Emperor of Sand – the eminently tuneful introspection of Steambreather; Show Yourself, anthem enough to stir Radio Ga Ga clapping throughout the Academy – are as instantly accessible as anything they’ve recorded, without betraying their prog essence.
But, perhaps heeding the message of Melville’s Moby-Dick – which their second album, Leviathan, retold via the medium of razorwire thrash – Mastodon resist any destructive, quixotic obsession with crossing over. Their next Brixton Academy show will doubtless be as much a triumph as this.