By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Two leading lights of progressive heavy music share the stage at the Fox Theater in Oakland when Mastodon and Opeth bring their current tandem tour to the East Bay on Dec. 2nd.

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The groups may approach music from different perspectives — Mastodon plays a decidedly heavy mix of metal, hard rock and prog, while Opeth has moved from its progressive black-metal origins to leave behind more extreme sounds– but the pairing of the modern progressive-rock giants makes perfect sense.

Delivering an innovative style of heavy music that draws on elements of hardcore punk, ’70s progressive rock and sludgy ’90s metal, the Atlanta-based quartet has been making its unique style of pummeling hard rock for the better part of two decades.

Coming together when former members of noise-punk band Today is the Day Brann Dailor (drums) and Bill Kelliher (guitar) met Troy Sanders (bass) and Brent Hinds (guitar) at a High on Fire show in 2000, the musicians discovered they had a mutual interest in iconoclastic sludge-rock outfits Neurosis and Melvins as well as the twin-guitar hard rock of Thin Lizzy. Though the band originally had a singer, by the time the group issued its debut Lifesblood EP on Relapse Records in 2001, the band had trimmed down to its current four-piece line-up.

Their first proper album Remission followed a year later, establishing Mastodon as a force to be reckoned with. Powered by the technically accomplished fury of Dailor (who plays like original Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo channeling jazz giant Elvin Jones) and featuring the labyrinthine riffs cooked by by Hinds and Kelliher, the group put out one of the most talked about metal albums of 2004 with their widely praised sophomore effort Leviathan. A conceptual recording that drew inspiration from Melville’s epic “Moby Dick” and Dailor’s avowed affection for progressive rock, the pulverizing album topped many year-end “best of” lists and is still hailed as a masterwork over a decade later.

Mastodon (photo credit: Jimmy Hubbard)

The band would continue exploring concept albums on the next two recordings, branching out with a wider palette of sounds that embraced psychedelia on 2006’s epic Blood Mountain and its follow-up, the emotional 2009 opus Crack the Skye that found the band going even deeper. Inspired in part by the suicide of Dailor’s sister when she was only 14, the album unspooled an allegorical tale revolving around astral projection, Stephen Hawking’s wormhole theories, the exploration of the spirit world and the planned assassination of the mad monk Rasputin in Czarist Russia.

While Mastodon would depart from the concept album template for their next two efforts exploring a more traditional hard-rock sound — 2011’s The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun in 2014 — the quartet’s 2017 salvo for Warner Bros. Records marks a return to using an album to tell a thematic story. A rumination on time and mortality that was heavily influenced by the battles with cancer being fought by several friends and family members — including Kelliher’s mother, who succumbed to the disease the year before — the album follows the tale of the protagonist who has been sentenced to die in a malevolent desert by an evil sultan.

Emperor of Sand features some of Mastodon’s most intricate and pop-minded vocal performances yet, while still embracing the crushing riffs and complex time signatures that have become their signature. The effort became the band’s third Top 10 release in a row, placing high on several Billboard charts while marking Mastodon’s biggest international debut of the group’s career.

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The band faced the same challenges as all music acts did during the pandemic shutdown of concerts and touring, but the quartet channeled it’s energies into the recording studio. After issuing the compilation Medium Rarities that featured soundtrack cuts, covers, live tunes and one unreleased new song last year, Mastodon put out the sprawling 90-minute double-disc set Hushed and Grim — which serves as an epic tribute to former manager Nick John, who passed away from cancer in 2018 — this fall to another round of ecstatic reviews.

For their current tour, Mastodon is joined by fellow modern prog-metal icons Opeth. Over the course of its nearly three decades of existence, the Swedish band has evolved from an experimental death-metal juggernaut to become one of the leading exponents of heavy progressive rock. Recruited to play bass in the band in 1989 when he was only 16, Mikael Åkerfeldt would end up moving to guitar and taking over lead vocals and leadership of Opeth, expanding on its traditional death metal sound with the addition of acoustic guitars and more complex six-string harmonies.

It took the group several personnel changes to settle on the line-up that would record the band’s debut album Orchid in 1994. Incorporating elements of atmospheric folk and progressive rock, the epic-length songs heard on Orchid (several clock in well over the 10-minute mark) delivered a challenging mix of dynamics and moods as Åkerfeldt’s vocals moved easily from death-metal growl to sonorous croon. Opeth refined its sound and began establishing a reputation as a powerhouse live act with subsequent albums and tours, leading up to the band’s landmark fifth effort in 2001 entitled Blackwater Park that broke the group to a wider audience in the United States.

That album marked Åkerfeldt’s first collaboration with noted producer, musician and sonic alchemist Steve Wilson (the leader of modern progressive-rock band Porcupine Tree and the go-to engineer to craft 5.1 surround sound mixes for the likes of Jethro Tull, King Crimson and XTC). Further exploring the guitarist’s love for challenging progressive sounds, the songs on Blackwater Park married extreme-metal intensity to the majesty and drama of Pink Floyd and latter-day Beatles. Åkerfeldt continued to push boundaries on Opeth’s follow-up efforts, the companion piece recordings Deliverance, which stuck to their complex metallic sound, and the straight progressive-rock release Damnation. 

Åkerfeldt has continued his audacious experiments in heaviness, but Opeth left death metal behind entirely after the release of their 2008 album Watershed. Cultivating a different sound that fully embraced progressive rock as well as elements of ’70s-era electric jazz fusion (particularly the Fender Rhodes electric piano and Hammond B-3 organ employed by Miles Davis and his disciples), Åkerfeldt and company pursued a new vision starting with Heritage in 2011 and continuing on Pale Communion three years later.

The band’s 2016 opus Sorceress put the spotlight on the guitarist’s acoustic guitar skills on several numbers while continuing to mine a knotty, dizzying style of heavy progressive rock that nods as much to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath as it does to Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer in its melody and aggressive attack. The band issued another live document recorded during the tour promoting the album — Garden of the Titans: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheater recorded at the iconic Colorado venue — two years later.

2019 saw Åkerfeldt and company issue its most recent effort, the celebrated In Cauda Venenum (Latin for “Poison in the tail”). Released in both English and Swedish language versions, the album was widely hailed as the crowning achievement of Opeth’s more prog-rock oriented era. While the band went through a major change recently when it announced the departure of longtime drummer Martin Axenrot, Finish drummer Sami Karppinen of the band Therion will fill in on the current tour with Mastodon.

Opening the show at the Fox is equally daring outfit Zeal & Ardor. Led by Swiss-American guitarist/singer Manuel Gagneux, the experimental group builds its unusual sound on the collision of black metal with gospel and traditional blues. Gagneux received high praise for the group’s powerful 2016 debut album and its follow-up, Stranger Fruit, two years later.

While he was working on material for the band’s third album last year, Gagneux felt compelled to pause that songwriting, focusing instead on the songs for the Wake of a Nation EP that were inspired by the police-custody death of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. The band’s self-titled third effort is scheduled for release in February of next year.

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Mastodon and Opeth with Zeal & Ardor
Thursday, Dec. 2, 7 p.m. $59.50-$79.50
Fox Theater