Coming from a band responsible for four of the best metal albums of the 2000s, Mastodon's first live album feels surprisingly flawed.
After a decade that saw Mastodon put out four excellent albums and establish itself as arguably the best American metal band working today, there's no better time than the present to cap off that admirable run with the ubiquitous live album. Ever since their landmark debut Remission, the Atlanta band had been tagged as "the next big thing", but unlike Metallica and Slayer a quarter century ago, the road to mainstream success took a fair bit longer to achieve, the deteriorating state of the music business forcing the band to do a lot of hard work cultivating a fanbase while churning out the studio full-lengths on a regular basis. Many, including yours truly, thought 2006's stupendous Blood Mountain would be the record to push Mastodon closer to the top, but it was actually the ambitious Crack the Skye two and a half years later that would finally generate impressive sales numbers, it's first-week sales nearly doubling those of Blood Mountain.
That long-awaited breakthrough in North America allowed Mastodon to finally hit the road as a proper headlining band, and they did so in bold fashion, performing the prog rock-oriented opus Crack the Skye in its entirety, followed by a second half featuring a good helping of older material. You'd think that their triumphant spring 2009 headlining North American tour would have been the perfect chance to yield the definitive live Mastodon document, but curiously, the band chose instead to film and record a set from their tour the following winter when they actually opened for Dethklok. Sure, the band's 12 song set from Chicago's Aragon Ballroom fits neatly on a single CD, but playing a set in front of kids mostly there to see a cartoon metal band hardly compares to the absolutely epic, near two hour performances they gave while headlining six months previous. You'd expect Mastodon's first official live album to be a moment of triumph; sadly, Live After Death this ain't.
Musically, lack of chemistry between the four musicians has never been an issue. Always an extremely potent live band, guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher, bassist Troy Sanders, and drummer Brann Dailor tear through the seven Crack the Skye tracks with tremendous precision. The complex arrangements and time shift changes of such songs as "The Last Baron" and "Ghost of Karelia" are executed so smoothly by the foursome that it's as if it's second nature to them and hardly a challenge at all. Anchored by Dailor, whose insane drum fills render the adjective "busy" a major understatement, the tightness of the band is extraordinary.
That said, the band's live lead vocals have become somewhat of an issue as of late. On past records where Sanders and Hinds delivered robust roars, there was no problem at all, but with Crack the Skye featuring primarily cleanly sung vocals, it's a challenge to make those voices heard amidst such a busy, dense, and very loud backdrop. Sanders and Dailor handles their roles decently enough, but Hinds is the clear weak link. On record his singing works very well, but on Live at the Aragon his voice is often a painfully thin, nasal whine that requires Dailor or Hinds to provide back-up just to make the vocal melody heard. So while songs like "Oblivion", "Divinations", and the masterful "The Czar" are potent from an instrumental standpoint, Hinds' indecipherable, flat singing lessens their impact decidedly. The fact that the four older songs performed at the end, including Leviathan classics "Where Strides the Behemoth" and "Mother Puncher", go over better because the vocals are harsher only reiterates how much work has to be done if Mastodon wants to make their clean vocals work in a live setting.
As for the DVD portion of the collection, it's well-directed by Lester Cohn, tastefully edited with many different camera angles, but because the band relies so heavily on rear-screen projections during the show, the musicians themselves are very poorly lit. As a result they're often bathed in blue light, so dim that you can barely see any details. Any fans who want to see those musical chops on full display will barely be able to see anything during the close-ups of the guitar solos. Of course, a couple spotlights would have done wonders, but that would have lessened the visual impact of the projected images that run through Crack the Skye, so we're stuck watching a mostly backlit band perform.
That said, the best feature on the DVD is "Crack the Skye: The Movie", which allows viewers to see the full, high-definition concert projections with the actual studio album serving as accompaniment. The storyline of the so-called concept album is far too dense to bother describing, let alone comprehend, but the images here are fantastic, and complement the album very well.
In the end, fans will be wishing they'd gotten that spring headlining setlist instead, when their marathon set included such favorites as "Iron Tusk", Megalodon", "March of the Fire Ants", and the 15-minute "Hearts Alive", which also would have given new listeners a far better indication of the breadth and power of Mastodon circa 2009. While not a total failure, Live at the Aragon still feels like a stopgap release rather than something that can stand alongside the formidable studio albums. There's still a fair bit to admire here, but it's clear this incarnation of Mastodon remains very much a work in progress in a live setting.