mastodon

Sometimes a concert lineup looks a little too good to be true. For fans of heavy music, Friday night’s triple bill at Club Nokia appeared to be such a lineup.

Opening up was Kvelertak, the Norwegian sextet that has already developed a formidable reputation with their style-hopping, riff-tastic brand of metal. Second on the bill was Gojira, the French act whose album L’Enfant Sauvage was arguably the best metal album of 2012. Finally there was Mastodon, heavy metal titans who have established themselves as leaders in the field. All under one roof in downtown Los Angeles. Earplugs and loose clothing were recommended.

The big caveat that came with the excitement was the venue itself, whose issues with acoustics and sight lines were evident early on. During Kvelertak’s immensely fun half-hour set, vocalist Erlend Hjelvik struggled to make himself heard over the band’s signature three-guitar assault, and the problem was never really resolved.

Not that it did much to spoil the show. Hjelvik was still a sight, a shirtless, hairy viking who took to the stage with an owl hat on his head. The band proved themselves to be showmen of headliner quality who just happened to be on a bill with two other amazing bands, and their blend of cock rock, blast beats, and swaggering shout-along anthems made them about as good a third-on-the-bill band as you could hope for.

Having said that, they were upstaged by their French counterparts. Gojira’s 45-minute set was a devastating display of technical precision and dexterity, with the band playing a kind of machine-tooled thrash reminiscent of Killswitch Engage during their End Of Heartache era.

On record they often sound deceptively subtle, but for the most part, this set drew the heaviest songs from their extensive back catalog, and the crowd responded by going, for want of a better phrase, completely apeshit. There were mosh pits in every direction, and Gojira fed greedily off that energy to produce a breathless performance. They looked and sounded like kings of the genre.

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It is impossible to tell whether that game-raising performance affected Mastodon, but in truth the Atlanta quartet began their show in surprisingly subdued and tentative fashion, with a couple of mid-paced songs that didn’t really get the pulses racing. Then “Divinations” kicked in, the energy level went up, and for the majority of the rest of the set, the band really found their groove. During that long stretch in the middle, they looked like a band that could comfortably headline any festival, of any size — such was the comfort they displayed knocking out some of the best rock songs released in the last decade.

There wasn’t much in the way of crowd interaction or show tricks, but when you have a guitarist as good as Brent Hinds and a drummer as good as Brann Dailor (arguably the best in the business), you have plenty to keep the attention. During one incredible stretch they galloped through the dizzying snowstorm midsection of “Capillarian Crest” before transitioning seamlessly into the groove-rock stomp of “Black Tongue,” a thoroughly convincing display of the band’s range.

New material was at a premium, though, and there was a sense that for all of the show’s qualities, this tour is something of a clearing of cobwebs for a band that is preparing the world for the next fascinating tweak to their sound. While we await proof of whether Mastodon can improve on its current five-for-five album stretch, it was pretty sweet of them to put together the best value for money tour of the year in the meantime.