Crack the Skye


Band: Mastodon
Album: Crack the Skye
Best song: “Divinations” is among the band’s best and tightest songs, up there with “Iron Tusk,” “Blood and Thunder,” “Crusher Destroyer,” “Colony of Birchmen,” “Shadows That Move,” “Mother Puncher” and “March of the Fire Ants.” Of course, the longest two songs on the records are also brilliant and complex.
Worst song: All good.

Like friend of the site Brad, Pitchfork and probably many other outfits, I’m going to eventually do a “best of the aughts” list. I’ve narrowed my list down a little, but it’ll probably be in the 50-albums neighborhood. Recency is probably too much of an issue for these lists; it’s easy to forget all the great albums released in the first two years of a decade.

For sure, I’ve written about a bunch of my top albums of the decade already on this and my old site (indeed, my two favorite albums of the decade were “unlisted” on the old site). But, making this list is becoming incredibly hard.

I write this because today’s record is on that list, certainly, and very near the top.

Mastodon got me back into metal.

I was not a huge fan of heavy metal in high school and college. I listened to a fair amount of punk rock, but progressive- and post- rock occupied my mind almost entirely. I graduated, moved out here and had a friend introduce me to two bands. One was Isis. The other was Mastodon.

The first album I’ve heard of theirs was the brilliant, focused and furious Leviathan. Based on the Melville classic Moby-Dick, it’s a record that’s tight and insane, full of killer riffs and the best drumming in rock and roll. Based on a book? Slightly progressive? Fuck and yes. It was and is right up my alley.

I’ve written about the band’s follow-up, Blood Mountain. Thought excellent, it isn’t as hard as Leviathan nor as interesting as Crack the Skye. It’s a striking record and a brilliantly structured one. It only pales in comparison to the Mastodon records that came before and after it.

With Mastodon came a revisit to Queens of the Stone Age (friends of the MAstodon guys and guest vocalists on tracks) and a look back into the band’s influences, notably Judas Priest, Metallica and Iron Maiden. That’s no small feat, considering I spent much of 2004 listening to Sufjan Stevens.

So, yeah, Mastodon got me back into metal.

My main criticism of Blood Mountain remains taht the storyline is fucking insane. This applies to the band’s next/most recent album, only moreso. The storyline of Crack the Skye is absolutely indecipherable. GUitarist Bill Kelliher tried to get it out in a Pitchfork interview, but it hardly made sense.

It’s got a quadripalegic boy and a Russian tsar and a wormhole and all kinds of crazy shit. Like, crazy. Apparently, Brann Dailor — the dude whose drum work makes me want to kiss him repeatedly about the head and neck — comes up with these ideas. He’s a big Peter Gabriel-era Genesis fan.

Now.

There is no question this storyline is totally batshit insane. It’s nuts. It produces lyrics like “crawling up through the crack in the sky” and “Wrathful one, nine eyes gaze.” It’s crazy.

But, lyrics in metal tend to be of a different animal than those done by singer/songwriters with an acoustic guitar. Elliott Smith — my pick for favored songwriter — wrote songs about real life with music that soundtracked real life. His worst work came when he fancied large arrangements and complexity over reality.

On the other hand, nothing about metal is all that real. It’s fucking crazy is what it is. The guitar solos and the nutty drum rolls and — especially — the death growl. I don’t want to say that you can’t take it seriously, because that wording doesn’t work. But, it occupies a different space.

Lyrics/vocals — as I’ve mentioned before — often are another instrument to me. In the case of Mastodon, this is especially true. Yes, I want them to make some sense, but “letting go” isn’t Walt fucking Whitman, ladies and gentlemen. It needs to fit the emotion of the rest of the band and Mastodon’s crazy lyrics — and they are pretty crazy, to be able to fit that batshit story line — fit.

With all that craziness, Crack the Skye is fucking brilliant piece of music. It is, in short, when Mastodon discovered the best of progressive rock. Tempering the Dream Theater-esque crazy speed stuff is the melodic Pink Floyd-esque soaring melodies.

That’s not to say that the band goes full-on Floyd. It doesn’t.

With any seven-song album, the expanse of styles covered isn’t exactly wide; seven songs — no matter the length — can only be so cohesive. And, indeed, Mastodon doesn’t try out, say, roots rock on Crack the Skye.

Rather, the band incorporates elements from other genres and applies the elements to the metal genre. “Oblivion” has the aforementioned Floyd-esque guitar solo, while “Divinations” has the crazed banjo intro — Brent Hines developed his guitar skills first by playing the banjo in Georgia as a kid — of an Applachian mountain song. “Quintessence” borrows mid-career progressive rock keyboards, but only for small spaces. “The Czar” takes a funk rock detour mid-way through the song building into a classic rock epic, all while processed through a metal filter. The album’s title track is pounding and And the soft(ish) beginning of “The Last Baron” could’ve been borrowed from the baddest ass AAA radio station.

Overwhelmingly, though, MAstodon remains Mastodon. Brann Dailor’s drum fills on the longer songs — “The Last Baron,” specifically — are epic and sustained. Hines’ solos are varied (the slow burns of “The Last Baron” and “The Czar” to the barely contained insanity of “Divinations”) and amazing. Guest vocalist Scott Kelly (of Neurosis) partially carries — via death growl — the load on the title track, while Troy Sanders’ own voice — less death growl, more soaring singing — acents the songs wherein he plays a huge role (“Oblivion” and “Ghost of Karelia,” specifically). Dailor himself sings the verses on “Oblivion” and puts fellow drummer/singers Phil Collins and Don Henley to shame (cut me some slack, those were the only two I could think of).

It’s a striking album. The long songs (all but “Divinations” clock in at five-plus minutes and two are more than 10 minutes) make for interesting changes; “The Czar” is actually a four-song suite. It’s an ambitious one. The storyline is crazy and another band could’ve easily spent the record showing off how proficient it is.

Mastodon is proficient; indeed, these guys are great musicians. But, overwhelmingly, the album works, it flows and it’s catchy and rocking. Progressive rock has a new face.

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