Release Date: Mar 24, 2009
Record label: Reprise
Genre(s): Rock, Metal
An epic prog-rock trek Mastodon’s past flirtations with prog have consistently pitched toward the metal side of scrimmage, never fully embracing the melodic pomp of Yes and ELP. Crack The Skye—though still intrinsically a metal album—is rife with unabashed overtures to the symphonic rock of yore. The mosaic’s central tile is “The Czar,” a four-part ode to Rasputin bursting with Moog lines and Eastern European folk.
It takes a special band to do a prog metal concept album with dignity, but Atlanta's Mastodon are genre masters. Their breakthrough Leviathan was steeped in imagery from Herman Melville's Moby Dick, while 2006's Blood Mountain was littered with mythological creatures. Their sound is a cauldron of heavy southern rock riffs, duelling guitar harmonies, doomy Black Sabbath vocals, skittish jazz drums and eye-popping screams - a metal fan's dream.
Two and a half years ago, we expected Mastodon to pull out all the stops on their hugely anticipated third album, and they didn’t disappoint, as the triumphant Blood Mountain had the Atlanta, Georgia band serving notice that they had every intention of being the standard bearers for American metal in the 2000s. What we didn’t expect was that the record’s overall sales numbers would be so middling. At approximately 150,000 units sold, that’s certainly no failure, but given the enthusiastic response to 2004’s Relapse-released Leviathan by both fans and critics, some outstanding tour exposure (supporting Slayer, playing Ozzfest, hitting the huge festivals in Europe, and even playing the hipster-friendly Bonnaroo and Pitchfork Music Festivals), and loads of label hype, their Warner Brothers debut, for all its boldness and ambition, seemed to stagnate after peaking at number 32 on the album chart.
First off, a warning: the best way to encounter Mastodon's Crack the Skye for the first time is with headphones. Reported to be a mystical -- if crunchy -- concept record about Tsarist Russia, this is actually the most involved set of tracks, both in terms of music and production, the band has ever recorded. "Ambitious" is a word that regularly greets Mastodon -- after all, they did an entire album based on Moby Dick -- but until now, that adjective may have been an understatement.
Mastodon’s Crack the Skye has caught some flak from diehard fans regarding its pristine production and clean vocals (those metalheads are so hard to please). Well, it should be said that expensive production doesn’t necessarily equal lazy production, and clear vocals doesn’t equal selling out. Who the hell listens to Mastodon for their crooning, anyway? If Crack the Skye was a full-on instrumental piece, you could still tell me it was a concept album about Czarist Russia and I’d believe you.
First off: Mastodon's album concepts are officially out of control. It's one thing to base an entire album on Herman Melville's Moby Dick, as the Atlanta band did on 2004's amazing Leviathan. But when you're making a record about a kid who experiments with astral travel and then goes through a wormhole and meets Rasputin and Rasputin enters his body to escape assassination, or something, you've pushed this whole thing way, way further than it needed to be pushed.
With bands of Mastodon's calibre, you'll always get pre-emptive reactions to every new album, concerned predictions that bands are about to do something too "out there" or uncharacteristically mediocre. So far, Mastodon haven't really dropped the ball, and their latest massive slab of concept-heavy proggy sludge-infused metal sees the band push further into jaw-drop territory. [rssbreak] Crack The Skye touches on everything from astral travel and demons to Russian Orthodox sects, so it's easier to list what this album isn't about.
If Mastodon weren’t so astoundingly accomplished on a technical level, as musicians who’ve entirely mastered their heavy metal art, then taking the Atlanta foursome seriously would be very difficult indeed. Firstly, there’s the name. Apologies to dirty-kneed archaeologists out there, but essentially naming yourselves Fuck-Off Enormous Extinct Elephant doesn’t tick all that many boxes of cool.
On paper, Mastodon’s fourth CD — a concept album about being transported into Rasputin’s body to do battle with Satan in some mystical realm — sounds horrifying. Our advice: Forget the putative story line and bask in Crack the Skye‘s superb sonic qualities. Happily, the Atlanta quartet has jettisoned most of its sludge aesthetic and now crafts a dynamic sort of hard-rocking head music, equal parts King Crimson and King’s X.
Review Summary: A strange journey into the occult that leaves the listener with an earful of amazing riffs but not much more.When dealing with a genre like metal that prides itself on extremes, there's the issue of escalation to worry about. How does one follow the most face-melting and brutal album ever? Fans expect more than the same riffs but played faster and heavier, which leads bands to expand their sound in a variety of ways, both successful and unsuccessful. Dillinger Escape Plan's Calculating Infinity was technically mind-blowing but also a difficult pill to swallow in its inclusion of free jazz harmonies, diminished scales, and time signatures generated randomly by rolling a 20-sided die.
I discovered Mastodon’s Crack The Skye because two friends told me I must hear it on two consecutive days. I’d never liked anything they previously did, but I was promised that it was a giant leap forward in terms of accessibility, songwriting and overall quality. And it is. With this fourth album, the progressive metal tour de force has conjured up a brilliant concept album with endless replay value.
Mastodon is an unruly beast. Over the course of four conceptually linked albums, the Atlanta metal behemoth has (re)mastered the elements of existence: fighting fire with fire on blackened 2003 full-length debut Remission, taking to the seas a year later for Moby Dick-inspired watermark Leviathan, and scaling the more experimental terrain of 2006's Blood Mountain. Mastodon's latest, Crack the Skye, is a cosmic trip for the ages, balancing the fantastical, spiritual, and deeply personal, much of the album taking inspiration from the suicide of drummer Brann Dailor's sister Skye.
When Mastodon vocalist Brent Hinds cracked his skull in a tussle with System Of A Down, he took advantage of his prolonged hospital stay, writing a song about what it’s like to be confined in movement, with astral projection as the condemned’s only escape. “Oblivion,” the opening track to Crack The Skye, supports any number of arguments: Has the band mastered every conceivable time signature?; Can it alternate instantaneously between southern music and heavy rock? Is math rock just a cheap indie attempt at what dedicated hard-rock bands do much better? In the time since recording the epic Leviathan, Mastodon has gone out of its way to compose challenging music with corners too tight for most of their contemporaries. They could have garnered numerous King Crimson comparisons without really changing anything, but the band sweated the technique anyway with a wider palette of instruments, sounds and myriad vocal styles that never sound like simple imitation or mimicry.