Mastodon did a great rendition of Crack the Skye, but seemed less interested when they got to their older material. Dethklok, on the other hand, was surprisingly intense as well as fun.
A combination of an early-starting weeknight show and unexpected difficulty getting my press tickets ("Sorry dude, you're not on any of our lists" is one of the worst things to hear when you're expecting to get into a concert for free) caused us to miss the first band on the bill, High on Fire. So between me and The Rockist, that makes two PopMatters writers who have missed them on this tour. Sorry, guys. By the time we made it inside, Converge was onstage. Despite getting huge critical raves this year for their new album, Axe to Fall, they didn't really win me over. But then, hardcore is usually a tough sell for me. They also didn't win over the crowd at large. As Dethklok thanked the rest of the acts at the end of the night, their mention of Converge drew a large amount of boos. Still, their intensity was impressive and the band as a whole was very tight musically.
As Mastodon began, the onstage lighting went low and the giant HD screen behind the stage came to life. Their set kicked off with "Oblivion", and the band proceeded to run through the entire Crack the Skye album. When I've seen Mastodon in the past they haven't been the most visually compelling band, but they put on a thunderous, intense performance. But for this tour with Dethklok, they don't seem interested in having the audience's attention on them. They performed their entire set in low green and blue lighting, with little variation in the light show itself. Instead, the HD screen showed a combination of animated and live-action videos that brought the bizarre storyline of Crack the Skye to life. So we got to see a colorful, yet faceless, animated man connected by an umbilical cord spinning through a variety of psychedelic environments. And we got to watch numerous black-and-white short films meant to look like old silent movies that presented the story of Rasputin. None of this made much sense to my friend, who wasn't familiar with the band or the album's concept. And frankly, it wouldn't have made sense to me either if I hadn't read numerous interviews with the band explaining the story, which I won't bother reciting here. Crack the Skye isn't particularly coherent from a lyrical or narrative standpoint.
Regardless, though, the band's actual performance was spot-on. Despite being cloaked in low light, Mastodon seemed to be having a lot of fun playing the album in its entirety. Highlights included the title track and "Divinations", but the whole thing was pretty great. The last third of the set, in which the group returned to play a handful of songs from their earlier albums, seemed a bit perfunctory. Right now Mastodon seems a lot more interested in their new material than in any of their older stuff.
Then it was time for Dethklok. While I enjoy watching the Metalocalypse tv show, I haven't always been able to get into the band's weird combination of parody and straight-faced metal. The music works as a bit to end each episode, but not necessarily as well when it's a collection of full-length songs on an album. To my surprise, though, the live version of the band put on a hell of a show. Each song was accompanied by some sort of cartoon video, sometimes from the show but mostly new animated pieces that went with whatever song the group was playing. And, like Mastodon, the actual band was only dimly lit so that the video screen commanded most of the attention. There were also comedic interstitials featuring the band backstage, as well as concert etiquette tips from their animated mascot, Facebones.
Despite the comedic overtones, the band itself performed straight-faced for the most part. Show creator and songwriter Brendon Small does guitar and vocal duties live, and the band is rounded out by a bassist and second guitarist, as well as legendary metal drummer Gene Hoglan. It was pretty surreal to see the guy who spent all those years doing the tv show Home Movies up onstage shredding on guitar and doing competent cookie monster vocals. The band is a tight unit, though, playing the songs to perfection, precisely timed with the videos running behind them. But it's Hoglan's drumming that gives Dethklok its power. His feet go almost nonstop, pounding away at the double bass drums constantly. Like many metal bands, the bass guitar in Dethklok is basically an afterthought, but Hoglan's bass drums give the live band an incredible low end to their sound that doesn't always come through on record.
For the most part, the live band let the songs and the antics of the cartoon band on the screen speak for themselves, with Small's only audience interaction being a growled "Good night"! at the end of the main set. As the band returned for an encore, though, Small had a conversation (by himself) as the band, where he did all of the different voices. This was an entertaining little bit, but I was happiest with the group's final song, where they turned off the video screen, turned up the lights, and performed as themselves, even introducing each member of the actual band. Small then gave a heartfelt thanks and goodbye (in his own voice) to the raucous crowd as they left the stage. I wasn't sure what to expect from Dethklok going in, but they ended up being my favorite band of the night.