Troy Sanders, the bassist with progressive metal band Mastodon, is hunched over a mike center-stage at Madison Square Garden.
“Break your backs and crack your oars, men!” he roars. The decibel count goes off the scale. The response is a sea of raised fists in which smart-phones glow like foam.
While the noise would be enough to have some rock fans running for the exits, Mastodon has been selling millions and giving record companies pause for thought. The Atlanta quartet, which played New York with grunge pioneers Alice in Chains and alternative metal act Deftones, is touring the U.S. and Canada.
“We’re big dorks,” Sanders says in an interview before the show. He’s drinking vegetable soup from a paper cup and clad in worn jeans and a plaid shirt that looks a size too small. The ensemble is completed by black sneakers with orange socks. “We like mountains. We like water.”
Mastodon favors that long-ridiculed idea of a concept album. Its 2002 debut, “Remission,” had something to do with the element of fire. Two years later, “Leviathan” Cliff-noted “Moby-Dick” -- a gift for every 17-year-old metalhead obliged to sweat through chapters like “The Whiteness of the Whale” in junior English. “Blood Mountain” (2006) went in search of a mysterious talisman able to deliver gifts of profound power.
The New York concert on Sept. 24 peaks with “The Czar,” a novel condensed into 11 minutes, from last year’s “Crack the Skye,” a collection that told of astral projection, time travel, pre-revolutionary Russia and the murder of Rasputin.
“It’s like mayonnaise and chocolate,” Sanders says. His beard, barbered to a neat triangle, suggests a Rasputin not given over to dissipation. “You wouldn’t think it would mix, but if you properly blend it, it’s going to be tasty.”
It’s not everyone’s taste. Lyric sheets larded with phrases like “cosmogenic cycles” and “physeter catodon” may cause a longing for the beer-and-biker hedonism of Motorhead, or the simple aggression of Slayer.
Mastodon also likes songs that tend to run longer and feature more time and key changes than your average Lady Gaga or Kanye West chart-topper. The quartet, each in the dark T-shirt and worn jeans that is metal’s day- and eveningwear, keeps the rock-god posing to a minimum as video screens flash album art and images of medieval Russian knights.
Mastodon concludes with “Blood and Thunder.”
“White! Whale! Holy! Grail!” Sanders leads the crowd in chanting as guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher thrash out a great metal riff and Brann Dailor’s drumming erupts with controlled chaos to rival the late John Bonham of Led Zeppelin.
A few complex songs such as “Capillarian Crest” are rendered into indecipherable sludge in the cavernous Garden.
Still, there’s something to be said for ambition, and Mastodon, if nothing else, aims high. The band, according to Sanders, sought a timeless feel with “Crack the Skye.” The CD was given a high rating on Metacritic.com, which gives numeric scores to media reviews, and may be the “Paranoid” or “Led Zeppelin IV” of its day. A new album can be expected next year, Sanders says, along with a live DVD. Rating: *** 1/2.
The Alice in Chains, Deftones and Mastodon tour, called BlackDiamondSkye, continues through October. Information: http://www.blackdiamondskye.com/
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(James Holloway is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)