Nautical imagery has always been a staple of the aura of Mastodon, dating all the way back to the group’s sophomore splash, 2004’s Moby Dick-themed Leviathan album. As such, it’s only appropriate that the Atlanta group would use the Georgia Aquarium as the backdrop for its webcast acoustic show Thursday evening. Pre-show interviews saw band members waxing rhapsodic about their appreciation for the aquarium and the creative opportunities it offered them. Always salt-of-the-earth gentlemen, it’s easy to forget the quartet makes up one of the most successful, most influential and most musically accomplished progressive metal bands in the modern world.
Mastodon initially thought it would be appropriate to the location to perform the Leviathan album in its entirety, but that idea was scrapped due to concerns that the record’s overall heaviness would disturb the aquatic life and interfere with the structural integrity of the facility (those familiar with the ferocity of that album will know this observation was likely offered only partially in jest). The actual set presented as an overview of the group’s career in a stripped-down, acoustic setting.
The result was a keen opportunity to appreciate the sheer harmonic depth that serves as the structural undercurrent of those walls of distortion. That wildly hybridized fusion of obscure Eastern modalities and good ol’ fashioned Southern blues is what gives Mastodon its signature sound — like being caught in a beautiful, chaotically swirling wind tunnel; one feels as though they’re in the midst of a hurricane that has been somehow rendered majestic and peaceful.
In the stripped-down space, subtle textures emerged among the players, the sort of intimate nuances normally found only among the most refined jazz ensembles. Guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher laid down lines that embraced the soaring, lyrical aura of David Gilmour while still incorporating the otherworldly explorations of Robert Fripp.
Drummer Brann Dailor, who normally cuts a tornadic path, delivered a far more delicate performance on a smaller drum set with beats that, like his stringed counterparts, seemed always to be standing firmly in two circles: a beguiling midpoint between hard bop-inspired jazz grooves and tribal eccentricity. Rounding out the group’s sound was bassist Troy Sanders whose slinky, down-tuned bass lines provide the perfect foreboding atmosphere.
Of particular note among the evening’s many high watermarks (pun intended) were the group’s intoxicating vocal harmonies predicated on those very same exotic musical structures. Mastodon is that rare band that not only features four lead singers, but singers who are each deeply aware of their strengths and where to apply them. Sanders’ resonant midrange sits comfortably between the soaring upper register of Dailor (one of the few singing drummers to do both well) and the guttural croons of Hinds and Kelliher.
To hear Mastodon classics rendered with this much attention to detail was nothing short of transcendent. The evening’s set covered a wide range of material from the group’s back catalog, with Leviathan getting its fair share of attention, along with Blood Mountain and The Hunter.
Of particular note was the debut of a new track, “Skeleton of Splendor,” which was written as a tribute to Nick John, the group’s recently deceased manager and longtime moral support. The concert as a whole was dedicated to his memory. All in all, it was a diverse set and a testament to the group’s ability to balance conceptual continuity with long-term adaptability.
Mastodon is the rare band that can enthrall the heavy-metal faithful, earn the respect of learned musicians from other disciplines, explore the outer reaches of the avant-garde and still find time to win Grammys and top the Billboard charts. The Georgia Aquarium set was a testament to that extraordinary compositional communion that arises among the most creative and interwoven of ensembles.