When it was announced that Mastodon and Clutch would be touring North America together, many of those familiar with both bands thought, Now that’s a perfect combination. Granted, those underground-oriented metal fans with nothing but disdain for anything that flirts with the mainstream, not to mention the fans both bands attracts, might’ve thought that in a negative way, but those who actually enjoy Clutch and Mastodon were elated at the thought of the two doing a co-headlining tour, yours truly included. It’s the kind of double-bill that makes you wonder why bands like those two have never done it before.
Either way, the chance to see two popular bands with very loyal fans play equally epic sets was too tantalizing to miss, and when I saw them play my city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in late April, it had sold out well in advance. Mastodon, of course, has become one of the more popular metal bands in North America, although it’s fair to assume they’ll never fully cross over to the arena level of the Slipknots, Volbeats, and Five Finger Death Punches of the mainstream metal world. Clutch, on the other hand, thanks to heavy touring, has turned from a cult band to one that’s connected with working class heavy rock fans in an extraordinary way. When I expressed surprise that Mastodon would be playing last through Western Canada, I wasn’t kidding; I was certain Clutch would be the bigger draw. True enough, the 1,000-capacity venue was packed to the gills when Big Business finished their sludgy, Melvins-esque opening set.
I’ve seen Clutch too many times to mention by now, and one of the joys of seeing them play is how each set list differs every night, with all four members taking turns selecting which songs would be played. This night, though, was unique. I don’t know if it was because the band is on tour with a band with extreme metal roots, but this was the hardest-rocking Clutch set I’ve seen in years, 70 minutes of — ‘scuse the obvious Clutch reference — pure rock fury. Ditched were the dark blues and groovy jams the band has pulled off so well for so long, in favor of many of the band’s most aggressive tunes from the past decade. These include heavy numbers like “Regulator”, “Burning Beard”, and “Profits of Doom” and a series of scorchers from 2013’s Earth Rocker (“Crucial Velocity”, “Cyborg Bette”, “Unto the Breach, and the brilliant “D.C. Sound Attack”). Crowd pleasers like “Cypress Grove”, “The Mob Goes Wild”, and “Electric Worry”, helped bring down the house down at the end.
For good measure, Clutch also threw in a pair of new songs, “Decapitation Blues” and “Sidewinder”, which feel very much in the Earth Rocker vein. The setlist amounted 17 tunes in all, generating wicked, palpable energy that had the crowd surging, the result of the extraordinary chemistry between singer Neil Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult (his face perpetually hidden by his ball cap), bassist Dan Maines, and drummer extraordinaire JP Gaster.
The room remained full for Mastodon’s set 20 minutes later, but the feeling in the air wasn’t the same, lacking the fanatical anticipation Clutch had. The previous set felt like mayhem would break loose at any second, with band and audience both feeding off that vibe. But when Mastodon took the stage to the more mannered sounds of “Tread Lightly” from last year’s Once More ‘Round the Sun, the atmosphere felt sterile in comparison. Clutch’s sound mix was full, crisp, heavy, while Mastodon sounded thin, the guitars lacking warmth and weight, the rhythm section in turn pulled back so not to drown out the guitars. The 15-song set was performed with the usual taut precision Mastodon has excelled at since day one, but the band’s lead vocal issues continue to dog them, again failing to equal the refined melodies you hear on record. Plainly speaking, the newer the songs were, the weaker they sounded overall.
It wasn’t until “Aqua Dementia”, “Black Tongue”, and “Crystal Skull” were carted out that anyone got to hear the Mastodon of old — good lord, I’m saying that about Mastodon now. In these moments, awe-inspiring heaviness burst through, offsetting the progressive tendencies perfectly. Closing the set with “The Czar” was an inspired choice — the more time goes on, the more I’m convinced it’s Mastodon’s finest track — but by then it was too little, too late. In contrast to Clutch, whose power and energy was contagious, Mastodon felt strangely mannered, at times a shadow of its former self.
Album of the Week
In the two weeks since the last column; last week’s was postponed due to the site redesign here at PopMatters. Since then, a slew of interesting new albums came out, and while it’s impossible to tackle them all, I did manage to delve into a baker’s dozen or so.
Band Of Spice, Economic Dancers (Scarlet)
This is a strange one. Led by Spiritual Beggars member Christian “Spice” Sjöstrand — hence the band name — it starts off as a rather impressive, albeit by-the-numbers, retro heavy rock record, but soon heads straight for the middle of the road. First he’s ripping off Springsteen, then goes Gaslight Anthem, then the band launches into an extended Dire Straits jam, and then later on there’s a Hold Steady vibe going on. It’s not a case of feeling like “selling out”, it’s more a case of a band excelling playing harder music, and losing all personality the moment it softens. If it stuck with the Grand Funk riffs and grooves, and this album would be gold. (Listen on Spotify.)
Bell Witch, Four Phantoms (Profound Lore)
Funeral doom is nothing if it doesn’t have a consistently strong, mournful melody counterbalancing the forceful heaviness and plodding tempos. Without it, people like yours truly nod off in minutes. What’s so great about this new album by the astonishingly heavy-sounding duo from Seattle is just how well those melodies weave in and out of the music on these epic compositions. If it isn’t from Dylan Desmond’s upper-register bass — more Peter Hook than Steve Harris — it’s provided vocally, indecipherable chanting juxtaposed with the simple yet very effective, and at times devastating, doom arrangements. At more than 66 minutes, it’s a lot to take in, and indeed it bites off more than it can chew, but despite their inability to stick to the “less is more” adage, this is an awfully impressive effort. (Listen on Spotify.)
Castrator, No Victim (HPGD)
This gimmick is a good one: a group of women playing brutal death metal with an apparently feminist slant. Just what they’re going on about on this four-song EP is anybody’s guess; whatever feminist message they might have is lost in the indecipherable vocals. But that in turn places the focus on the music itself, which proves that while this is all a great gimmick, this is far from a novelty. It’s robust death metal in the vein of Immolation, savvy enough to keep things concise, and melodic enough underneath all the grinding and blasting to hold your attention. And the sample from Hostel: Part Two on “The Emasculator” is rather brilliant. (Purchase the album here.)
Coliseum, Anxiety’s Kiss (Deathwish)
The affable Louisville band had been drifting away from hardcore to a more post-punk sound inspired by the likes of Killing Joke and Jawbox, and 2013’s excellent Sister Faith was the moment where it all started to truly come together. The follow-up — the band’s fifth album overall — continues that evolution, but having found the musical niche they’re comfortable with it’s all about bringing in more subtleties. The jagged, atonal riffs commingle with very catchy melodies, aggression and introspection engage in a compelling back-and-forth, and singer/guitarist Ryan Patterson even explores the blues on the murky “Driver at Dusk”. Always critically acclaimed but perennially overlooked by listeners, it’s high time Coliseum broadened its audience, and this fine album has the potential to do it. (Listen on Spotify.)
Fister, IV (Crown and Throne)
Frankly the prospect of sitting down and listening to a single 45-minute sludge metal track always strikes me as boring at first. Not only do you do have to be in the right mindset, but there’s little room for error if a band is going to pull off such a stunt. Fresh off a performance at Roadburn — which I missed, natch — St. Louis trio Fister show some awfully impressive skill here, piecing together doomy, primal passages in a way that do hold the listener’s attention well. It’s a nasty, filthy-sounding record, which, if you’re into sludge, will have you over the moon. (Listen on Bandcamp.)
Hrom, Legends of Powerheart: Part 1 (self-released)
Featuring two members of speed metal outfit Gatekrashör — whom I’m particularly fond of — this Calgary, Alberta band focuses more on melody than pure filth, but very much like Gatekrashör, Hrom is happily stuck in the ’80s. In this case, it’s the late-’80s, hearkening back to the glory days of Crimson Glory, who combined speed, progressive qualities, and melody like no other American band at the time. Accentuated by NWOBHM-derived twin guitar harmonies and staccato rhythm riffs of Helloween, it’s an impressive foundation upon which singer Jan Loncik can showcase his powerful, multi-octave voice. For such a flamboyant form of music this album is rough around the edges, but therein lies its charm. For such a no-frills album, it has the steely determination to come across as huge, and you can’t help but admire both the effort and the execution. (Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.)
Kamelot, Haven (Napalm)
Kamelot didn’t lose a step when singer Tommy Karevik replaced longtime frontman Roy Khan on 2012’s Silverthron, and the Tampa prog/power veterans continue that positive momentum on this, their 11th album. At their best, Kamelot find an impeccable middle ground between progressive metal intricacy and power metal bombast. In fact, the vocal melodies never slip into overbearing histrionics, something I always find rather remarkable with this band’s work. The singing is always in control, emoting but never over the top. It may seem overly polite, perhaps even sterile to some people, but the ornate melodies and sleek production always win me over, and this record is a particularly strong one. “Fallen Star”, “Veil of Elysium”, and “My Therapy” are all good examples of how perfect a fit Kerevik is, while Delain’s Charlotte Wessels and Arch Enemy’s Alissa White-Gluz pop in for a few effective duets. (Listen on Spotify.)
Korpiklaani, Noita (Nuclear Blast)
You think you’re sick of Korpiklaani’s polka metal shtick — after all, they make the same freaking album every single time, with brain-numbing consistency — but then whenever you hear them catch lightning in a bottle again, and you realize, damn, this band is fun. At their best, the boozed-up Finns are phenomenal of keeping the energy high and jovial, uptempo tunes counterbalanced so well by melancholy Slavic melodies, and tracks like “Sahti”, “Luontoni”, and “Jouni Jouni” are instant crowd-pleasers. I’d counted these guys out long ago, but this ninth album is their most inspired since 2009’s Karkelo.
Monolord, Vaenir (Riding Easy)
The Swedish band impressed mightily on last year’s debut Empress Rising, and they’ve wasted no time putting out a follow-up that continues right where that record left off. When it comes to stoner doom bands, you never expect anything particularly bold, only devout adherence to the formula of heavy, turgid riffs and psychedelic melodies, and Vaenir serves up more of the same. However, Monolord does it so well that it’s a pleasure drinking it all in, familiar as it all is. Underneath all that brute force is a sense of grace not enough doom bands have, a sense of groove and swing that makes even the slowest tracks glide along smoothly and effortlessly. Coupled with Thomas Jäger’s reverb-drenched singing, mixed in a way that he sounds far off in the distance, it makes for a dreamy, hypnotic experience. (Listen on Spotify.)
Raven, ExtermiNation (SPV)
Walk With Fire (2010) was a tremendous return to form by the NWOBHM favorites, and that energy is palpable on the new record, bassist John Gallagher screaming and howling as crazed as ever — the man is ageless — while his brother Mark squeals away on guitar. Once again, though, the boys carry on a little too long. These 15 songs are overkill, even for a band as fun as these gregarious guys are, and by the time you get to the final third of the album, which includes an unnecessary ballad, you’re fatigued from all the histrionics. Still, “Destroy All Monsters”, “Battle March Tank Treads”, Bon Scott tribute “Thunder Down Under”, and Newcastle tribute/send-up “Malice in Geordieland” are a total blast, fitting in neatly alongside classic Raven from the early-’80s. (Listen on Spotify.)
Sigh, Graveward (Candlelight)
The Japanese band has long been the metal equivalent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting: a crazed, schizophrenic sonic Grand Guignol that overwhelms the listener with layer upon layer of sounds. So it’s rather fitting that this latest album pays tribute to classic Italian zombie flicks and Hammer horror films. However, as busy as Graveward initially feels, it’s nowhere near as crazed as 2012’s confounding and delirious In Somniphobia, and stripped of all the manic trappings common to Sigh the music feels shockingly pedestrian. Some tracks do work, the title cut in particular, but more often than not the riffs feel second rate, failing to mesh with the lavish symphonic arrangements. This is a case where simplifying exposes a lot of weaknesses in Sigh’s music that might have been well masked on previous albums. (Listen on Spotify.)
Six Feet Under, Crypt of the Devil (Metal Blade)
Does Chris Barnes even give a damn anymore? Six Feet Under has been coasting along for 14 albums now, and for all that consistency has been so lapped by his former band Cannibal Corpse that it’s not even funny anymore. On this latest album, he’s teamed up with Phil Hall from Municipal Waste and Cannabis Corpse, and try as Hall might to inject this project with a little freshness, this is as boring and hookless as death metal can possibly get, made even worse by Barnes’s haggard growl, which sound tossed off during an afternoon between spliffs. This is a complete waste of time. (Listen on Spotify.)
Unleashed, Dawn of the Nine (Nuclear Blast)
Can anyone tell Unleashed albums apart? Do their fans even care? Johnny Hedlund and his band of Swedish death metal old-timers do the exact same thing time and again, and with every new release you can’t exactly complain because it’s so effectively done. Unlike Vader, who tend to mix things up a little while sticking to that same old formula, or Amon Amarth, who smartly integrate strong melodies into their death metal, Unleashed, solid as they sound on record, need a real kick in the pants. This 12th album is a good example: its crunchy, crusty sound and groovy rhythms are innately satisfying, but it soon becomes a situation where songs are going in one ear and out the other, Hedlund roaring that same roar, carrying on about Vikings, battles, and whatnot. Hell, when you’re in a long-running and respected band and write a song called “The Bolt Thrower” (it’s like Metallica writing a song called “Slayer”), you need to take a step back and ask yourself if you have any valid, worthy ideas left at all. (Listen on Spotify.)
Head Above Ground
Finnish metal cellists Apocalyptica have come a long, long way since bursting on the scene with their album of Metallica covers 19 years ago. What seemed like a novelty has turned into a shockingly lucrative career. Heck, every second person I met on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise this year was most excited to see Apocalyptica. Theirs is an interesting approach, just something I could never get into. But what success they’ve had: 2008’s Worlds Collide was a substantial hit, and 2010’s cameo-laden 7th Symphony charted at number 31 in America. Although it’s good to see a band not become complacent, show willingness to evolve, from the second I heard the new album Shadowmaker, I sensed the band had strayed too far towards the middle of the road. The production is so high-gloss, the effects so rampant that there are times when you can hardly tell whether it’s cello or guitar, and the songs are so boring, going for a bland, mainstream “active rock” sound. Plus the fact that they now have a full-time singer instead of numerous well-known guests affects any more potential crossover appeal.
Apocalpytica strayed from their core strength: adding a creative twist on heavy metal. In so doing, this once-unconventional band now sounds painfully run-of-the-mill. So when you add all that up — boring songs, boring sound, lack of star power — you’re left with a very dull album, and it’s not surprising to see Shadowmaker sputter on the US chart (#83, 3750 sold), selling barely a quarter of what 7th Symphony did in its first week. Not good.
Track of the Week
UK innovators Paradise Lost will be releasing their new album The Plague Within in one month, and if the first single is any indication, old-school fans of the band have every reason to flip their collective wigs. “Beneath Broken Earth” is a total throwback to the death/doom of Paradise Lost’s infancy, simple in structure but so impeccable in execution. Frankly, it’s gorgeous, striking the right balance between soul-crushing doom riffs and grandiose, gothic melodies that shoot skyward like a cathedral spire: so straightforward, and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. That’s all that needs to be said.
Blabbermouth Headline of the Week
Horns Up: Drew Cook and Craig Gruber (RIP), Between the Buried and Me’s new album, Neil Peart.
Horns Down: Necrobutcher, September Mourning and Revolver magazine exploiting Ben E. King’s death to get website hits, Neil Peart’s tendonitis.
Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.
Follow Blood & Thunder’s rolling Best Metal tracks of 2015 playlist on Spotify.