[live review] Opeth, Mastodon and Ghost shake the Orpheum's foundations whilst questioning metal's central tenets

Papa Emeritus and the anonymous ghouls of Sweden's Ghost minister to the faithful at the Orpheum last night

For self-identified metalheads of a certain age, it’s clear that has a change has occurred. It probably happened sometime around the late 90s, when everything went to shit and suddenly the music that called itself “metal” made you feel old-- it was probably around this time that you desperately latched onto artists like Opeth and Mastodon as saviours of the genre. In addition to being absolute monsters on their instruments, these bands as up-and-comers had class: they had cool album artwork, they had proggy arrangements, they were brutally heavy without being a bunch of down-tuned nonsense, and onstage they seemed to wear sensible non-baggy jeans. Now those two bands are officially metal titans, which is odd because both bands have gravitated towards the most un-metal music of their career-- Opeth with their latest, last year’s prog-leaning Heritage and Mastodon with the, uh, prog-leaning The Hunter. If these bands are the future of thinking man’s metal, then that future is probably not as straight-up metal as one might think.

They played Boston's Orpheum last night, on a tour which drags along openers GHOST, a swedish six-piece notable for a) their anonymity, with five members garbed in black face-obscuring cloaks and their singer, known only as Papa Emeritus, decked out in a full cardinal outfit with a skull face mask, b) the way that their songs adhere strictly to the lyrical splendor of Satan, and c) the way those Satanic odes are encased within sunny-yet-rocking 70s-nodding grande rock. The last time Ghost came to Boston it was a way over-sold Middle East Downstairs earlier this winter-- and although that show ruled, they seemed much more in their element playing a large and ornate theater, where their stagecraft and ritual-laden riff-pop can breathe in the open air. With a stage setup replete with stacks upon stacks of Orange amps (it struck me on the day that Jim Marshall died that discerning gear snobs seem to have moved on from his company’s wares to more esoteric vendors) and a backdrop meant to give the impression of a Satanic stained-glass abbey, Emeritus and company walked out into a cloud of frankincense billowing from a swung thurible and proceeded to plead the case for Satan, one gorgeously rocking ode after another. An early highlight was a rousing rendition of “Elizabeth”, an almost romantic paen to Madame Bathory that sings sweetly of bathing in virgin blood the way “Afternoon Delight” coos about the joys of a mid-day quickie. But nothing was played for laughs, as in a live setting Emeritus and his minions seem serious in the plying of their carefully-orchestrated Satanic wares.

Mastodon: Relentless and pummeling, but is it "metal"?  And do they care?

MASTODON took to the stage shortly after, and with a deep breath proceeded to plunge deep into an exhausting run-through of material that stuck for the most part to their last three long-players. The band has moved past the brutal stoner-bludgeoning that made this Atlanta troupe seem so durn perfect way back when-- now, they are serious musicians who pummel and pummel with music that, though somewhat samey when taken in large doses, is nonetheless completely exciting and exhilaratingly well-executed. Their music from The Hunter, especially, is frantic and mesmerizing: all put together, they kind of sound like if someone took the three Dio-era Rainbow albums, removed the vocals, put a much busier drummer underneath it all, chopped everything up and reassembled everything randomly, and then haphazardly blurred everything until all that was a pulpy residue of Ritchie Blackmore riffola. Especially spellbinding was a gooey descent into the spacey meat of The Hunter, as “Stargasm”, “Blasteroid” and the album’s title track warped and burned with glistening guitar shrapnel. Sure, it wouldn’t hurt the band’s sound and overall ability to commune with an audience if a shirtless long-haired belter in tight leather pants bounded onstage and screamed “How y’all doing!?!”-- but we’re talking the product of 90s damage here, and as long as the twin guitaring is tight and the spiraling prog-jams are churningly chaotic and bewildering, it’s hard to fault the band for not being “metal” enough in a classic sense.

(Oh, one final parenthetical note on The 'Don's set: they seem to be closing their sets nowadays with "Creature Lives", a semi-jokey tune off The Hunter which sounds, to my ears, like their attempt to create a song-that-doesn't-sound-like-them-that-will-wind-up-becoming-a-freakishly-adopted-Euopean-stadium-soccer-anthem, a la "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes.  Not sure if it's going to happen for them, but you've got to admire the attempt.)

Of course, if one thinks that Mastodon have strayed from a strict metal orthodoxy, then what to make of the current OPETH? The five-piece, currently primarily the brainchild of guitarist/vocalist Mikael Åkerfeldt, have shed the death-metal vocals of their past and, on Heritage, gone full-on prog. And I don’t mean “prog” as in the meaty unholy riffage of King Crimson-- when the band lurched into set-opener “The Devil’s Orchard”, the jazzy tricksiness, mellow mellotron somberness combined with Åkerfeldt’s wounded-yet-plaintive howl conjured nothing so much as the arch-weirdness of H To He, Who Am The Only One-era Van Der Graaf Generator. We’re talking serious prog, people! Ren faire acoustic breakdowns, baleful keyboard flourishes and swinging jazz drums all jabbed elbows with crunching riffs and double-time blast-beats for dominion over the sound, and the effect was absolutely spell-binding. If it was hard to headbang to (and lacked the full-on propulsiveness of Mastodon’s lost-at-sea churning), it was also a wonder to behold. The band eventually chucked a few of their more brutal epics in there at the end, closing with the near-fifteen-minute warhorse “Deliverance”, cranking the crunch and turning up the growl. But it was clear that the band has matured beyond even the majestic sweep of their first decade of shred, and that their seeming dalliance with progressive rock isn’t just a phase they’re going through.

Con Clavi Con Dio
Death Knell
Prime Mover
Satan Prayer

Black Tongue
Hand of Stone
Crystal Skull
Dry Bone Valley
The Hunter
The Octopus Has No Friends
All The Heavy Lifting
Crack The Skye
Bedazzled Fingernails
Curl of the Burl
Aqua Dementia
Blood and Thunder
Creature Lives

The Devil's Orchard
I Feel the Dark
The Lines In My Hand
The Grand Conjuration

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