Ever since the 2004 London Underworld show that everyone and their mums have claimed to have attended, Mastodon’s reputation as a live force on these shores has bounced from awe-inspiring to disappointingly flat and back again, with a frustrating habit of never quite connecting during those all-important big festival shows damaging an otherwise mostly spotless CV over the past decade. For every mind-blowing showing at a Brixton Academy or a Roundhouse, there’ll be an outdoor set that feels like a lost opportunity to climb further up metal’s ever-slippery ladder. Plus, when 2014’s great-but-not-revolutionary Once More ‘Round The Sun failed to top end-of-year lists and their shows were met with applause and approval instead of rabid, frothing admiration, it appeared even this slightest dip from the heralded standards was a cause for concern, concluding in last year’s Bloodstock headline show where the Atlanta quartet simply seemed to be going through the motions. It’s as if the unthinkable had happened; for both band and fans it had all become a bit familiar.
However, the well-documented tribulations that influenced Emperor Of Sand have reset the dials, with the album reclaiming the throne in Hammer’s Album Of The Year poll and their live shows, including a return to Download, garnering gaggling praise, suggesting business has certainly resumed. Yet as they hit these shores for the first date of seven UK shows, there’s still the nagging feeling that Mastodon may have now passed that inevitable tipping point where bands go from their unstoppable prime to graceful yet still celebratory middle age.
In what is incredibly their first headline show in Wales since their Remission tour, Mastodon have a stellar choice of support. Both RUSSIAN CIRCLES  and RED FANG  showcase a musical landscape inspired by the Atlanta quartet, where immersive, evolving exploration meets the almighty riff. With the former being such regular headliners in their own right, it’s strange to see the Chicago trio’s vast, textured soundscapes constrained to a few dozen minutes in front of a modest crowd, leaving just as the gradually building tempos and Brian Cook’s rolling basslines elicit the required escapism. There’s no such dilemma for Red Fang. Straight off the bat they’re akin to a landslide ploughing into bystanders who are more than eager to be swept away by their corpulent arsenal. Ever teetering on the edge of apocalyptic rumble and good-time groove, the mammoth fuzz just keeps on coming while Aaron Beam even tries his hand at some Welsh, which is greatly received on a successful match day.
Opening with a 13-minute inter-dimensional voyage from their most daring, avant-garde album is precisely what you wouldn’t expect from anyone else, which again underlines just what a unique proposition MASTODON  still are. The Last Baron’s otherworldly magnificence tears through the fabric of reality with unexpected twists and more peaks and troughs than the turbulent boiling seas wherein leviathans dwell. The fairly simple melody of Ancient Kingdom and Black Tongue’s tar-thick approach bookend the intergalactic meteor shower of Bladecatcher, while unobtrusive lights give way to LED columns where hypnotic visuals conjure the fantastical lands and characters so prevalent in their music. Understated bassist Troy Sanders keeps audience interaction to a minimum, preferring to let the rigorous hooks of new numbers Show Yourself and Andromeda speak for themselves, while Bill Kelliher is quite content to chug away in the corner and effortlessly summon forth the licks of Sultan’s Curse. Mother Puncher delivers the primal ferocity from their earliest material while the monstrous crunch of finale Blood And Thunder unleashes the energy and excitement built up over the set in one cathartic, joyous release.
As much as the onslaught of drum fills and idiosyncratic leads reveal what extraordinary musicians you’re witnessing, time and again the band’s Achilles’ heel has been the vocals, and again it’s an exposed flaw. In a way it’s comforting to know that underneath the frenzy of beats Brann Dailor is indeed human, with his more delicate, melodic voice showing strain on Oblivion and Roots Remain, while Brent Hinds’ mumbling drawl detracts somewhat from the angular rumble of Colony Of Birchmen. Ultimately, when operating at such a high level it’s necessary to split hairs in order to continue to adapt and excel, but as Brann addresses the crowd at the end to thank them for their patience and support, you wonder what more they could have done by album seven beyond almost unanimous acclaim, playing to even bigger crowds and threatening to become landmark figures in not just the rock hall of fame but musical history full stop. But as Brent so perfectly summed up to fans out in the city the night before the show, “I’m doing the music I wanna do, man. It’s great that you like it but if we lose some fans along the way being different, fuck ’em.”