Before Friday night’s headlining performance at Empire Garage, Mastodon hadn’t played a show in almost six months, according to bassist and vocalist Troy Sanders. For a band that’s usually constantly on the road, that can feel like an eternity. While metal has seen better days at SXSW, this was a show people were excited about, and the band got to unveil some new songs from their upcoming record, “Emperor of Sand,” live.
They opened with “Sultan’s Curse,” a return to the intricate prog-metal they came up on. It was knotty but also immediate, and guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher were flexing with flair like it was second nature. “Andromeda” further went on the prog tip, a throwback for fans who crave them going nutty with instrumental flair. “Show Yourself,” on the other hand, is a more straightforward rocker, dominated by drummer Brann Dailor’s high-strung vocals. His move into singing has been one of the best things about Mastodon’s more mainstream sound, and he’s still a dexterous drummer on top of that. That was evident when he ripped the opening roll of “The Wolf is Loose” from “Blood Mountain”; if anything, all this touring has only made him a more disciplined, but also vicious player. Finding that sweet spot between tight and loose is important to them: Hinds ripped out a shreddy country lick during “Megalodon” that’s still as twangy and juicy as it’s ever been. It was a little part of what makes Mastodon a treat live: yeah, they know all of these weird time signatures, and they still manage to have some fun on top of that.
One of SXSW’s main features, for better or for worse, is putting big artists in rooms far too small for them. This forced intimacy can make for some great Instagram moments and bar talk for some, and frustrating lines for many more. Mastodon came up playing rooms far smaller than Empire, so this felt like a natural return to form for them. They built their reputation not just on merging prog with metal, but by packing rooms where even if you weren’t in the front, you could still make out all their tattoos. They thrive off bodies moving in close contact with each othe. and while they didn’t have lasers when they played the old Emo’s on Red River a decade ago, this show was like the old days in spirit. They went all the way back to their debut, “Remission,” to close the set with “Mother Puncher,” and hearing that crunch felt as new as it did in 2002. Most of the crowd seemed like newcomers who probably didn’t check that album when it first came out — Mastodon’s energy made equals of everyone, as long as you were able to get in.
Couldn’t make it out during SXSW? Mastodon will be back May 20th at ACL Live with Eagles of Death Metal and Russian Circles.