On the band’s fourth full-length (fifth if you count Call Of The Mastodon) Atlanta’s Mastodon makes an album that will finally test the patience of the alternative elite that has traditionally supported them. I’m more suspicious of these music-types than the indie rocker who openly disdains metal because at least he’s being honest about it.
Yes, I’m one of those who believe there’s a large contingency of hipsters that have stood by Mastodon on the sole reason that they needed to find a relatively underground metal band to align with just to prove that they’re open to all kinds of music.
Their affection towards Mastodon should end with Crack The Skye, an album that puts the notion of “concept album” to a point of ridiculousness while utilizing a famous producer (Brendan O’Brien) to help capture the mayhem and, quite possibly, tidy up the results to get it ready for mass consumption.
While Crack The Skye isn’t quite The Black Album, it does share that album’s spirit and intention: to make the most technically precise album of their career and to make it the most accessible too.
Here’s where the bands took different roads: Metallica started to compose songs that were completely different from their catalog arsenal. Mastodon is taking songs that are in their catalog titles into entirely new dimensions. They’re now toying with progressive elements. They’re singing. They’re creating songs that you may actually hear on the radio, not just the stations on the non-commercial bandwidth.
It is these elements that will most certainly take a negative view to anyone that isn’t a real metalhead underneath all that pretention.
While Bob Rock taught Metallica that recording is the process of capturing the perfect take of each song, Brendan O’Brien is teaching Mastodon that recording is the process of capturing the perfect sounds for each song. He’s introduced the band to an impossible amount of vintage gear—amplifiers and guitars—and these brushes are used extensively. In every song. In every manner.
The amount of soloing will make your head spin, but it’s the tone and texture of these sounds that will make you understand what a great producer O’Brien is. There’s a risk that any band would face when dealing with this amount of interplay. O’Brien’s gig was to introduce new tones for these indulgences, but it fell upon the band themselves to make sure the execution worked.
They do, particularly Brent Hinds who treats every solo like it’s his last. Perhaps it’s the result of one scary and stupid altercation with the bassist of System of a Down that left Hinds with a brain injury, severe enough to the point where he was at risk of losing his craft. His soloing gets more intense as the album progresses, until it gets to the last song on the album, a thirteen-minute-long epic called “The Last Baron.” Halfway through it, Hinds unleashes a solo so sick that you have no idea how they’ll come out of it let alone how they got there. The answer is clear: the band has decimated nearly every aspect of metal in the course of the album that by the time they reach the final track, they have no choice but to start lifting techniques from the Zappa camp.
Crack The Skye clocks in at a wonderful fifty-minutes in length. As a result, it doesn’t wear thin while it gives you plenty of extra sonic gravy to savor with repeated listens. It’s the kind of album that your older brother, if he really loved you, would bequeath to you when he left the house for good.
The only weakpoint of the album is the concept—something about a kid hiding Rasputin’s spirit and using it to travel through the astral plane in order to get back to Earth—is impossible to take seriously.
Not only does the concept itself take on too much and serve as a point of contention among non-metal critics, it’s a distraction from the real inspiration of Crack The Skye. The album’s namesake is drummer Brann Dailor‘s sister, Skye, who died at the age of 14. Dailor, one of the album’s chief composers, has spent a long time dealing with that pain, and this album seems like one of the first attempts at coming to terms with the tragedy. The fact that he’s hidden the album’s true meaning in a mess of Muscovite Tsardom indicates to me that Dailor’s still not ready to let go of some of his emotional baggage, and having to explain such a wordy concept is more tolerable than having to recount the details of his own personal tragedy.
What he leaves off the paper, Mastodon executes through sheer musicianship and that is what makes Crack The Skye special. The moment you forget about the “concept” or worry about what it was supposed to be, you can do nothing but admire the performances it contains. There’s no band today that can match what Mastodon is able to do with their instruments.
Is it better than Leviathan or Blood Mountain (review)? It’s probably in the middle. While those albums have a bit more muscle to them, Crack The Skye has a bit more passion behind it. Not only with the “real” concept it avoids through ridiculous diversions, but in the manner how the band talks through their shit by playing together. There’s a scene in the deluxe edition DVD where the band discusses the making of the album. Brann begins talking about the inspiration his sister provided them, while a later interview with Brent Hinds shows how he is not entirely certain about the details of Dailor’s sister, even after the recording ended. As the album reveals, Crack The Skye is the band’s sonic therapy session and it is even more complex and layered than the real world issues that forged it.