Review Summary: Mastodon go for broke with this live CD/DVD and it pays off. "Live at the Aragon" is an impressive (and authentic) representation of the band's fiery live show.
“The greatest metal band of their generation – no one else comes close.” – Rolling Stone
So quotes the packaging to Mastodon’s new live DVD, “Live at the Aragon.” Right there, you’re all in: play an awesome show and you’re heroes; play a pretty decent one and you're another band that couldn't live up to the hype. To make matters worse, Mastodon proclaimed before the recording of the show that what happens on the stage is what the fans will see on the DVD. No overdubs, no cut and paste – no “Unleashed in the Studio” for these guys.
“Live at the Aragon” is a vivid documentation of Mastodon’s show. The audio recording is impeccable; each instrument is clear without being overpowering in the mix. Listening at home on a full stereo, I could feel the bass drum hits as much as I could hear them. The guitar tone is exactly the same as on the album: crunchy and deep from the rhythm (Kelliher), slick and clear from the lead (Hinds). Sander’s bass, while audible, is a low, rumbling foundation. I was a bit disappointed that Brent didn’t pull out his double-necked guitar for The Czar, but you can’t win every time. In typical Mastodon fashion, mistakes aren't anywhere to be heard, though the crushing sound of the band might mask them anyway. The additional keyboards are a nice touch, giving the milder sections ambiance and filling in between songs.
As was the routine for the Crack the Skye tour, Mastodon played the eponymous album in its entirety, followed by choice cuts from their back catalogue in reverse chronological order, like a descent into the depths of their sludgy discography. I saw a show earlier on the tour, and this setup definitely separated the long-time fans from the new ones -- only the hardcore fans were still shouting along to "March of the Fire Ants". Here, however, there is no "Colony of Birchmen" or "Blood and Thunder". For some odd reason, the band decided to play some deep cuts for the second half of the show, including an (ahem) cover to finish the night. While the choice seems like a mistake for a career-encompassing live album, it is justified by terrific performances. And hell if the band doesn’t look like they’re having a bit of fun while they’re at it. On “Where Strides the Behemoth,” Troy points an accusing finger at Brent during the line, “the beast is on my right!” At one point, Brent takes a minute to show off his hybrid-picking banjo technique with some cool tapping moves.
For a band that has made a career out of touring relentlessly, Mastodon gets a lot of flack for having a “boring” live show. They just stand there and play their music. They can’t sing worth a damn. They don’t interact with the audience. Well, folks…get over it. Mastodon play technical, heavy, dense music – the kind that doesn’t lend itself to theatrics. Some of the greats are the same way: for example, guitar god Eric Clapton doesn’t say a word during his shows. These guys let the music do the talking.
In terms of the visual show, there’s plenty here to fawn over. The camera work is great: key points of the show are focused on for several seconds, which is nice when you’re trying to see what that awesome drum fill or killer guitar riff looks like. There are, like, a thousand camera angles, some of which fly over the audience and pan across the front of the stage. The video is high-resolution, so there are no fuzzy or distorted shots, which really brings the show to life. Another thing that sets this DVD apart is the Crack the Skye Movie. Played behind the band to compliment their show, it’s a psychedelic video representation of the convoluted story behind Crack the Skye…something about out-of-body experiences, astral travel, wormholes, and Rasputin. There are videos, pictures, graphics, crazy drawings…not all of it makes sense, but it’s a lot of fun. Whatever it is, it’s cool.
Now about those vocals, easily the weakest part of the album. Mastodon’s singing duties are generally shared by Hinds and Sanders, with Dailor pitching in on "Oblivion". The former mostly has a nasally whine, which gets rather annoying during songs like “The Czar” and “The Last Baron.” Still, he comes through great performance of the shouted “Aqua Dementia”. The growled vocals are Sanders’ territory, and he does a good job throughout the show. His sludge-metal techniques (if you can call them that) come through occasionally, as he tends to slur his words and drag out vowels; it’s an acquired taste, but it generally works. Fortunately the mixing helps, as Sanders is more audible than Hinds for the most part. As the show gets into the older songs, harsh vocals become more prominent, and in fact are a highlight of “Aqua Dementia,” “Mother Puncher,” and “The Bit.” Overall, both singers generally hold their own and keep the vocals from dragging down most songs.
Between the aural assault, great cinematography, and inspired performance by the band, the complete package of “Live at the Aragon” is awesome. This is a band on top of their game, leading (if not revolutionizing) a fresh, progressive style of music in the new millennium. Mastodon gave themselves one shot at nailing a concert and immortalizing it, warts and all, for their fans in a DVD, and they put on a vintage show. This is worthy of most any metal collection, and establishes once and for all that, while still finding their voice, Mastodon are the real deal.