With virtually ever 90s indie act either about to join or fresh from the comeback trail, it can`t come as any surprise that this modern Merseybeat act sound more than a little like their fellow cityfolk Cast or, to put it another way, like The Verve covering Steve Harley`s `Come Up and See Me (Make Me Smile)` only with the slightly hungover listlessness of a Sunday morning festival slot. Vocallist Nick Ellis and co definitely have the talent to carve out a long career as a tribute act, one simply wonders whether writing material "in the style of..." will work for them as well as simply cutting to the chase and covering the back catalogues of our Britpop heroes.
Arriving slightly late in a heavy downpour means Winnebago Deal have come and gone by the time we get there, which is unfortunate as I’ve heard many good things about them.
Valient Thorr are assembling on stage as we arrive, with an eight foot LED backdrop emblazoned with the bands logo, which is the band’s name but in a spiced-up Transformers™ type font, shining brightly enough to reduce the five men to silhouettes. When the lights do come up it looks like a chapter of the Hell’s Angels have taken over, but their over-friendly demeanour persuades you otherwise.
Frontman Valient Himself is a skilled raconteur. He talks about “sausaging out” of his shirt because it’s so warm inside, firing missiles of positive energy into the audience, and something about Robocop – it’s bizarre, and I suppose it’s what you come to expect from a band whose Wikipedia page details their ‘actual history’ and their ‘earth history’, but the man knows how to entertain.
Their music is classic hard rock, replete with intricate solos, balls-out rhythm, and shout-along lyrics. They play with an infectious energy and before finishing Valient Himself has the crowd singing Daphne and Celeste’s `U.G.L.Y.` but with the words `P-A-R-T-Y, we don’t need no alibi. We party! What? We party!` in order to get the headliners pumped up backstage.
Mastodon are about to start an extensive European tour over the next couple of months in support of Metallica, as well as putting in several festival appearances along the way. I think scheduling four headline shows in the UK before it all kicks off allows the band to play a set which wouldn’t work on the European tour. This means playing `Crack the Skye` through its entirety with an accompanying film beaming through the LED screen behind them.
The film is loosely based on the album’s concept, which is (very briefly): a paraplegic boy’s astral projection through space which leads to an encounter with Rasputin who then tries to lead the boy home. As you can probably imagine, it looks like a Stanley Kubrick re-make of Star Wars, but it works.
The band are incredibly tight tonight, their songs’ odd time signatures really emphasise how disciplined they must be when writing and practicing (at this point I have to say that Brann Dailor is probably the best drummer I’ve ever seen live, he’s more machine than man). ‘Divinations’ is fast and furious; ‘The Czar’, relaxed and eerie; the title track ‘Crack the Skye’ is slow and heavy; and ‘The Last Baron’ is all of the above.
The sound is clear and everything you’re meant to hear, you do hear. Often at rock/metal gigs the acoustics can suffer a little. Usually, either the vocals are muddy and indiscernible, or the lead guitar parts get lost in the mix and you have to actually look at the guitarist to see that he’s playing them. Thankfully this doesn’t happen tonight and you can really appreciate the elaborate riffs.
After an hour or so the seven song set is finished and Mastodon leave the stage to a rush of cheering, shouting, whistling, and clapping – everyone is pleased but they’re still expecting the customary two or three song encore.
And so the band return to the stage playing the intro to ‘Bladecatcher’ while bassist Troy Sanders, like a Roman emperor, holds his thumb down and slowly turns it up as the audience erupts. After a few songs it becomes clear that this isn’t really an encore as much as it is a completely new set. Going backwards through their albums this second set includes the heavy grooved ‘Colony of Birchmen’, the impossibly complex ‘Capillarian Crest’, and finally ‘Iron Tusk’ leading into ‘March of the Fire Ants’ for the finale.
After fifty minutes and about ten songs they leave the stage once again but the cheering, shouting, whistling, and clapping is about twice as loud. Overall the second set sounds a little dirtier than the first, but the band are much more energetic and interactive with the crowd. They really step up the intensity and crowd responds by doing the same.
Tonight’s show is not only a master-class in musicianship, but also in work ethic and dedication. You may think that this review is so cheery it will give you diabetes, but Mastodon truly earned it. They are perhaps the most important metal band of our generation.