A photographic account of heavy music in Portland, Maine
(Editor’s note: This is the first installment in an extremely intermittent series of columns, wherein our founder indulges in self-deprecation, -aggrandizement and/or -reflection. Fairly warned be thee, says we.)
People like to talk shit about Mastodon.
I get it.
In recent years, the band has devolved into an FM-ready rock act with a pop sheen. Mastodon’s new music still carries their trademark intricacy, but it’s no longer delivered at an unhinged, reckless clip. The anger is gone. Nobody is pissed.
They’re probably just bored. There’s no better evidence of this than the name of their latest LP, “Once More ‘Round the Sun” — a title that roughly translates to “Meh, Here’s Another Album,” or “Contract Obligation,” or *shoulder shrug.*
Worse, it seems like there’s nothing the band won’t monetize. On this tour, for instance, Bill Kelliher is selling private guitar workshops in every city before the shows. They sell deluxe packages of their albums with dubious DVD features, like track-by-track commentaries. Their Facebook feed is a de facto guitar store. A week before the release of “Once More ‘Round the Sun,” the band partnered with American Express and iTunes Radio to offer a free stream of the album, complete with Amex ads voiced over the opening riff to “High Road.”
Christ, they even sell sneakers.
For these reasons and more, Mastodon could almost claim pariah status last night at State Theatre. If you stood in line for will-call, beer, or a bathroom, you invariably overheard this statement repeated a dozen times:
“I’m just here for [Gojira and/or Kvelertak]. Mastodon’s OK, I guess.”
The writing on the wall is clear: If you want to maintain credibility among your peers, you should distance yourself from this band.
So, here’s the kicker: I still love Mastodon. And I probably always will.
Sure, their crass commercialism is a bummer, but they’ve earned a lifetime pass in my book. In fact, Post Mortem — whatever this project is — probably wouldn’t exist without them.
Three years ago, my mom died. The day after her funeral, I packed up her car and drove back to my home in Colorado. It was a 2,100-mile trip, I was alone, and I was losing my mind.
It’s hard to describe the loss of a parent. It is a profound sense of emptiness. Words can’t describe it, because there’s literally nothing there to describe. It feels like the world around you has been blanched of color and your mind and body suddenly inhabit a vast, lonely, featureless landscape.
So driving alone across thousands of miles of interstates was a bad idea.
A really, really bad idea.
In this setting of empty landscapes and mindscapes, I was doubly adrift. I needed a pathway back to the world of tangible things; to the realm of senses and emotion. I needed something to give shape and color to my grief. I needed rescue from oblivion.
In short, I needed music.
I stopped at the nearest record store I could see from the highway — a suburban Best Buy off Interstate 90. Pickins were slim but, as luck would have it, Mastodon had released “Live at the Aragon” a month earlier, and the store had a fat stack of them (and seemingly nothing else).
At that point, I’d heard just one album in Mastodon’s discography. I’d picked up “Leviathan” earlier that year and listened to it as a form of anger management during Mom’s final month. I was completely unfamiliar with anything else by Mastodon, though, so “Live at the Aragon” was a leap of faith by me — a fledgling, but somewhat-reluctant metalhead at the time.
It’s pure serendipity that I bought the album. “Live at the Aragon” is a song-for-song retelling of “Crack the Skye” — an album that channels Brann Daillor’s grief from the loss of his sister. I could’ve searched a hundred years and never found an album more perfectly aligned with my headspace at the time. I was hooked from the opening song, “Oblivion.”
Over the next two days, I drove Mom’s car out of the Mississippi River basin, across plains, foothills and, eventually, the Rocky Mountains. All the while, Mastodon’s live album gradually returned color and feeling to my world. Much of the experience was grief-stricken, but at least it was something. I was reawakened.
And I’m forever grateful.
So, it was through that prism that I witnessed Mastodon last night at the State Theatre. I watched with the knowledge that the band has changed over the years, and not all of it has been good. I also watched knowing that I have changed over the years, too, for better and worse.
But when Mastodon played “Oblivion,” I measured my feelings against those from the very first listen, and I knew I was back.