Crack The Skye
posted on 3/2009 By:
So here I sit listening to the new Mastodon album, Crack the Skye. This is a pretty significant thing for me, as it is one of the few times that I have actually sat down and listened to a Mastodon album. I’ve heard bits and pieces from their past and do own a copy of Blood Mountain, but I think I may have spent more time watching them live than I have listening to their recorded work. Hell, I may have spent more time listening to The Taste of Chaos Ensemble Performs Mastodon’s Leviathan than any one Mastodon album. I neither love nor hate the band; I’ve either rocked out to the live show or shook my head as their sound was lost in a large arena or amphitheater. This is all just to tell you that you’re getting a completely middle-of-the-road view of the album from me.
I’m at the halfway point right now and still waiting for something amazing to pierce my ears. The single “Divinations” still hasn’t clicked with me, and the 10+ minute “The Czar” just seemed too meandering. My ears did perk up during the opening notes of the title track, but damnit, my lunch break is over.
OK, picking up with the title track again. That was some pretty good stuff, flowing right into the 13-minute “The Last Baron,” which I had little hope for based on the previous epic, but it moved surprisingly well, an enjoyable epic (which would have been moreso had my supervisor not interrupted my listening.) Well, back to album opener “Oblivion” which somehow seems better this time around, and I manage to complete the track before, once again, lunch break is over.
“Divinations” is finally making sense to me, and I’m realizing that “The Czar” requires one’s full attention to appreciate. This stuff is worlds away from tracks like “March of the Fire Ants” and “Iron Tusk.” Still having a little trouble with “Ghost of Karelia,” though. If I could just get one session where I could listen to this thing, uninterrupted, in its entirety, I would be set. This lunch break stuff would work much better if I were reviewing punk albums.
What better test of an album is there than the gym? With that in mind, I loaded Crack the Skye onto my trusty iPod and headed for my workout. I normally use meticulously constructed playlists for these cardio workouts, and never with music quite like this, so this was going to be interesting. Amazingly, it all suddenly came together. As I’m listening to “Oblivion,” it occurs to me that the band didn’t write this song – they just picked up their instruments and it poured right out of them. At times in the past they’ve sounded like they were trying a bit too hard to be aurally challenging, but this feels perfectly natural; progressive, yet gritty. Anyone worried that Mastodon has forgotten their heavier influences will be silenced by the hammering riffs of “Divinations.” It’s not so much that the song is heavy as that the band finds a rhythm which hits you repeatedly until you submit to it.
Alright, well, “Quintessence” leaves a bit to be desired after the preceding tracks. It has some cool instrumentation in there, though, the kind of stuff you can only pick up at high volumes or with headphones. At least it didn’t interrupt my workout. The real test of that would be “The Czar,” apparently performed in four parts. Wow, what a journey. Seriously, I felt as if I was on some sort of sojourn, and the time just flew by. I also liked how part four recalled part one musically, as that always helps tie together an epic. The almost psychedelic feel of that track is counteracted by the guitar-driven density of “Ghost of Karelia,” which from an aerobic perspective, pushed me to keep moving even after the previous journey. It’s another one that you mysteriously find yourself wrapped up in without even knowing it. The title track takes that density, makes it even heavier, and continues to work its magic on you. This would easily be the album’s standout, if not for the fact that . . .
. . . goddamn, “The Last Baron” is amazing. I should add that by now I’ve moved from cardio to weights. I always knew progressive music was good for studying, but I didn’t know how it would help my pump. Would you believe I started doing my reps in time? That last time I was this wired-in to a song I started headbanging on an elliptical machine (which wreaks havoc on your rhythm.) The previous six tracks were obviously all building up to this epic crescendo, which is more of a continuous musical idea than “The Czar”’s four parts. Around the halfway mark, this heavy part comes on that is just awe-inspiring. Shit, I’m getting flashbacks to Dream Theater’s “Metropolis Pt. 1” here, one of my all-time favorite epics. I really can’t say enough good things about it. Just listen to it for yourself.
The Day After
Wow. I came home with complete appreciation for this album. I couldn’t even finish writing this on the same day because I needed that extra time to process what I had just experienced. Needless to say, I concede that Crack The Skye is one hell of an album, one that will easily make the fanboys cream their shorts and convert more than a few naysayers. If I recall my history correctly, it only took Cleopatra three days to seduce the mighty Julius Caesar; it looks like it only took Mastodon four spins to break me down with Crack the Skye (and any of my friends will tell you that I can be pretty bullheaded about such hyped things.) Don’t fight the greatness – just give yourself over to it.
posted on 3/2009 By:
To be blunt, Crack The Skye should've sucked. It was primed to be an epic flop -- a bloated exercise in career-threatening self-indulgence. These assumptions were based on Mastodon's preceeding reputation. After the cooler-than-cool Remission, the band succumbed to some of ambition's pratfalls. Leviathan strayed too far from the debut's flurry of hammerpunches, losing itself in a brittle, bristling wildness. Blood Mountain's ultra-cocky "we're gonna do whatever the fuck we want and you're going to LOVE it" attitude was alienating, intent on cramming a never-ending flow of dry noodle-oos down your throat without supplying an adequate riff-based lubricant.
Hot off these heels, the story of Crack The Skye's crackpot concept broke to the slavering public. That itself was enough for many (myself included) to sound the alarm signaling the band's demise. Assuredly, this was to be the album in which the band collapsed under the weight of their own egos, doomed to drown in used copies of Judas Priest's Nostradamus while lamenting their squandered shot at immortality. Embracing their "classic rock roots," toning down the angular aggression, diving headlong into untamed metaphorical waters -- all these elements should've combined to build Crack The Skye into 2009's most spectacular tragedy.
Instead, it's fucking brilliant. And it's brilliant because Mastodon are finally writing songs.
Throughout their career, Mastodon has been a band of moments -- the intros to "Ol'e Nessie" and "Mother Puncher", "Seabeast's" coda, the southern rock freakout in "Megalodon" -- but never before have they crafted a song as stunning and haunting as "Oblivion." Beastly in and of itself, it serves as a primer for the story yet to unfold, as well as a beacon of Mastodon's refreshing, invigorating metamorphosis. If this opener is a lost crustacean tumbling through swarms of starlit sand, its upbeat successor "Divinations" is the knucklecrack crabwalk that spirals the band into the sky; a launchpad into oddball prog-realms heretofore unexplored.
The exploration is riveting. "Ghost of Karelia" and "Crack The Skye" are emotive and dense, backboned by the strongest performances by Brann Daillor and Troy Sanders to date. Flexing cinderblock beats, Daillor largely eschews his trademark fills, opting instead to swing grooved balls of thunder from his limbs. Sanders blends funky fluidity with thick, craggy tones, and augments his attack with newfound bass-synth and vocal skills. His confident, ethereal cleans, especially when contrasted with guest Scott Kelly's roar on the title track, give the recordings a depth that Mastodon had only previously imagined.
As cool and multi-faceted as these tracks are, the true standouts are the four-part centerpiece, "The Czar", and the 13-minute sprawler known as "The Last Baron." "The Czar", quite seriously, is one of the most impressive compositions in recent rock history. As infectious as it is cerebral, it glues itself together with riffs molded in the same funk-fried cast that "The Last Baron" shatters and rebuilds. While rooted in a creepy Sabbath/Zep tossback, Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds liberally employ layers of acoustics, spiderweb wobbling, and jaw-dropping, shitgrinning improv soloing to pilot these epic journeys.
Mastodon is clearly taking cues from the past, but Crack The Skye is unequivocally and indisputably self-contained. This is a Mastodon record through-and-through, and thus far, it's their definitive accomplishment. Impressively, it also bleeds authenticity while (shockingly) shaking free the chains of pretense. They've captured a vibe of unity and warmth that has been missing since Remission. Perhaps this is evidenced in the art that accompanies their sounds -- their "red albums" hurl flaming rocks at your skull, forcing quick dodges and headjerks. The blue tones of this record seep into your pores...embedding themselves, soaking through and making symbiotic contact....floating, haunting...but most of all, smiling in subtle triumph.
Beneath the wash of complexity, the heaviness/headiness of the subject matter, and the layers-upon-layers of cracked-out instrumentation, Crack The Skye stands as the product of four dudes trying to make a timeless rock album. They've succeeded. May the flame burn brightly for genrations to come.
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