Metal’s Alive And Well And Better Than Ever

Mastodon, Converge, Priestess Feb. 17 At The 9:30 Club

It's a metal spring, and it started early when Mastodon, Converge and Priestess played the 9:30 Club, a lineup that's hard to beat on name alone and even harder once you consider their performances.

And don't forget about the bargain-basement price. Fifteen bucks to see three bands you would be willing to pay even more to see alone. Heavy metal isn't just making a comeback -- it has re-arrived -- and Mastodon is the flagship of the new movement. When the boys of Mastodon -- a band with a sound bigger than its name and the titles of its past two records ("Leviathan" and "Blood Mountain") -- took the stage, it was just two days ahead of a two-night, 9:30 Club stand by metal gods Slayer, but for all the latter's deserved legend and history, it was hard to imagine a better heavy metal show.

But let's go back a couple more hours to Priestess' set. It's more of a hard rock band that owes a debt to muscle car metal of the '70s but is bloozier and heavier. They kicked things off with "Everything That You Are," one of the high points from their debut album, "Hello Master," which has plenty of high points to spare. The music's more about the flapping long hair than the actual banging of the head. It's mostly full-throttle choogle, but the Sabbathy "Lay Down" at least slows it done to within 20 mph of the speed limit.

Didn't take long for a drum solo to make an appearance this night. In the middle of "No Real Pain" -- one of the more basic songs but a treasure chest of foot-stomping, stoner-boogie fun -- the rest of the band cleared the stage to let drummer Vince Nudo take the spotlight, and while he's a terrific drummer and played an engaging solo, there's just no time for a drum solo in a 45-minute set. Save it for your next show at 9:30 Club, when you'll be the headliner. (And you will headline the 9:30 Club.) We could have had another song or two instead. Priestess closed on the brutal, concussive drumming of "I Am the Night, Colour Me Black," with the rest of the band hammering away at their single-chord riffs in a battle to keep pace.

Converge's music doesn't reach back as far as Priestess. While Priestess doesn't want to leave the '70s, Converge picks up at hardcore punk, and it is the dominant hardcore-metal band of the day. Priestess, which rarely slows down, sounds like a waltz compared to Converge. Punishing blow after punishing blow, singer Jacob Bannon screams through the mayhem. Bannon's bark is typical of hardcore, but it's the music that makes Converge intriguing -- the relentless power and unpredictable timing and changes.

For all the demonic fury of their music, Converge started things off with a witty mic check: Bassist Nate Newton and guitarist Kurt Ballou sang a quick duet chorus of Justin Timberlake's instant-classic "---- in a Box" from "Saturday Night Live," before Ballou slowly drew the crowd into the set with a distorted guitar solo while the rest of the players took their positions. The band played a good helping of songs from their latest LP, "No Heroes," but also went back into the vault, playing songs from their entire decade-and-a-half career. "Forsaken" was the gem from the older albums, but the selections from the past three records -- like "Heartache" and "Concubine" -- hit heaviest and demonstrated that the band has really only just hit its stride in the past few years.

While both Priestess and Converge deserve and demand respect, Mastodon definitely deserved their top billing in this all-star lineup. A lot of great metal shows are coming to the area (read The Music Snob to stay informed), but none can match this lineup, and in 2007, it's doubtful any one band can outperform Mastodon. Truly larger than life.

Mastodon played most of "Blood Mountain," a concept album about a search for a magical crystal skull through a mythology of the band's own conjuring. While that may sound like goofy, Dungeons And Dragons-inspired metal nostalgia, Mastodon does it with wit and a message -- or rather, an explanation. Much like "Leviathan," an album based on selections from "Moby-Dick," "Blood Mountain" is about conquering, about big achievements. The achievement for this quartet is the massive sound, technical proficiency and immediacy it's mastered. By borrowing from arena rock, prog and math, Mastodon is doing some of the most creative things with metal since Melvins basically launched alt-metal 20-some years ago, but Mastodon does it without burying metal tradition. Name the giants -- Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Slayer, any of the early-'80s heavyweights -- and the comparisons are all valid. Mastodon's music is an homage to theirs, but it also goes a step further and makes metal relevant all over again.

"Blood Mountain" is more melodic than Mastodon's previous two records, but it's no less heavy. In fact, it often seems more brutal than anything the band's done in the past. There is the unrelenting thrash of songs like "The Wolf Is Loose" contrasting with smoother, psychedelic moments like those in "This Mortal Soil." The crescendo-laden "Capillarian Crest" features a disjointed, repetitious prog breakdown, which is something that isn't surprising to their fans except for its brilliantly awkward placement early in the song. "Circle of Cysquatch" is a layer of math-rock riffage over punishing rhythm, and "Sleeping Giant" smoothly melds gloom and doom with psychedelics. And as always, the band follows drummer Brann Dailor's mind-bending hammering into the madness.

Mastodon also played several songs from "Leviathan," highlighted by "Aqua Dementia," which mixes the thrash with devastating doom metal. And the band managed to string together three of the best songs -- "March Of The Fire Ants," "Where Strides The Behemoth" and "Mother Puncher" -- from their first album, "Remission." A guest vocal appearance from local grunge-metal band Clutch's singer, Neil Fallon, had many of the metalheads defecating themselves and had Mastodon begging, "Seriously, join our band." The set ended with "Hearts Alive," possibly the best never-ending metal song ever written. It's a quarter-of-an-hour journey through everything the band does well, and it would seem out of place anywhere in a Mastodon set except for at the end.

Also of note, the sell-out crowd was somewhat atypical of a metal show. The return to prominence of metal music largely is due to the approval of hipsters (Music Snob included) who appreciate the different direction young metal bands are taking the music. Alongside the expected heshers, bangers and beards were almost as many preppies, jocks and intellectual-looking types. There were even dates that looked like they got lost on their way to Georgetown, except they were into the music. That said, a sold-out show at the 9:30 Club is always a logistical nightmare, and never more so than at a metal show, where all the guys are acting so hard that no one is willing to tear down the wall and be friendly. Seriously guys, if a lady wants to get a drink at the bar, scoot to the side a bit. If a guy's gotta pee, he's gotta pee. Don't scream at him for trying to get by. If you're afraid of incidental touching, stay home and listen to the albums.

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