Mastodon Crack the Skye

[Relapse; 2009]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: progressive metal, space rock
Others: Neurosis, King Crimson

Atlanta’s hard rock purveyors extraordinaire Mastodon are some pretty deep dudes. Their albums fringe upon prog-metal perfection; each of their discs are an exercise in storytelling and songcraft as much as they are in head-banging. Their conceptual themes draw from both the most vested of canonical literature as well as highly imaginative parts of their personal mythologies and group subconscious. Take for instance their debut, 2002’s Remission, which revolved thematically around a dream had by drummer Bran Dailor, prophesizing a burning horse and nuclear holocaust, or 2004’s Leviathan, which heavily referenced Melville’s Moby Dick as an analogy for their own feelings of chasing the white whale and embarking on something they initially found to be impossible. And then there's 2006’s Blood Mountain, which spun a yarn about climbing mountains and reaching an apex only to find there are only more challenges (and bloodthirsty ogres) at the top. So it’s no wonder that, when news started to surface that Mastodon would be releasing a new album, one question resounded more than any other: what kind of hair-brained story arc would this one follow?

For those anticipating the new album to further Mastodon’s progress as raconteurs, Crack the Skye does not disappoint, continuing in the vein of a conceptual novella and completing an alchemical cycle of sorts. Where Remission dealt with fire, Leviathan with water, and Blood Mountain with the Earth, Crack the Skye deals with just that, the sky and the non-earthly realms, the atmosphere and the greater expanses of outerspace, what many have throughout the ages called the aether. Crack the Skye’s underlying concept is perhaps the most out-there yet for Mastodon, rivaling in convoluted inanity the story behind Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. It tells the tale of an astral-traveling paraplegic, who, like Icarus, is brought back down to Earth from flying too close to the sun, his golden umbilical cord melted, causing him to plunge through a wormhole, back through time amidst Tsarist Russia, where a divining cult of mystics called the Khylysty have cast the paraplegic’s spirit into the body of Grigori Rasputin. Once earthbound, the spirit warns Rasputin of his impending assassination. When Rasputin finally succumbs to his assassins, after putting up quite a fight mind you, the spirit returns through the wormhole back into the paraplegic’s body where he can once again walk. Crazy shit, right?

With the aid of big-time producer Brendan O’Brien, Mastodon have definitely cracked the sky with this one. After a bout of fisticuffs left lead man Brent Hinds with his head knocked in after the MTV Video awards, he was laid up in near catatonia for months, leaving the band worried he had brain damage and possible motor skill loss. The news hit the band hard and had them seriously contemplating for the first time that perhaps Mastodon would be no more. It’s an event that plays itself out duly on Crack the Skye. Opening track "Oblivion" deals lyrically with the aforementioned physically disabled astral traveler, who to escape his own feelings of being inextricably earthbound, psychically casts himself out into the astral plane through mind and body. It stands to reason that this trope is built on the feelings and possible out-of-body experiences Hinds experienced during those sedentary days in his hospital bed. Upon first listen, "Oblivion" may give die-hard fans the impression that Mastodon are perhaps losing their edge; compared to their other albums (which typically blast out of the gate with a scorching lead track), "Oblivion" is an anomaly, setting a more brooding tone for their most spacious album to date. There is more melodic singing, less screaming and grunting, and increasing emphasis on space and time. Oblivion goes not for a flurry of ham-fisted punches to the gut, but instead opts for slow-burning ethereal riffing expanding out into gusts of green mist.

"Oblivion" bleeds into lead single "Divinations," which like Black Sabbath’s titular song, gallops out Hades’ gate with a furious aplomb. The track commences with a banjo intro before its string phrases weave seamlessly with Dailor’s inhumanly intense drumming. Its entwined guitar lines snake around the listener’s head before burgeoning into a momentously melodic chorus. "No escape/ Binding spirits/ No escape/ Trapped in time space," croons bassist Troy Sanders in a shockingly harmonious manner. But just because there is a newfound emphasis on melodic harmonization doesn’t mean Mastodon have lost those sphincter-clenching bellows that made them so well known. After Sander’s chorus, Hinds roars and screams like he never has before, "Rapid descendants, the wormhole is empty," growls Hinds, signaling a void that must be filled, a passageway that begs for some entity to fill its space. "The magnet of wisdom is pulling," he continues to implore. The themes of preternatural forces, wormholes, and giant universal brains pulling spirits near is a perfect analogy for the sensations engendered by Mastodon’s laser-guided songcraft.

On "Quintessence," Mastodon utilizes an interplay of guitar phrases that’s become another trademark of their unique sound. Serpentine riffs wind around the listeners’ head and binds them into paralysis, as a flurry of inverted 13ths, impossible time signatures, double helix coils of riffs and bubbling synths all converge into a mosh pit-inducing thrash breakdown before diving into a glorious chorus, an admitted nod to the post-hardcore group sing-alongs of Fugazi, which showcases an unwillingness for Mastodon to stay within their safety zones. As the track fades out into a homage to Mike Oldfeld’s Tubular Bells, it blends into the first of two epic 10+ minute tracks. "The Czar" is a four-part suite that details the usurpation, escape, martyrdom and eventual astral projection of the soul that embodies Rasputin. It’s an undulating piece of space-funk that details the real-life trials and tribulations of Rasputin, who after being stabbed, beaten, poisoned, shot, bound, and thrown into the river, still only died from having his lungs submerged with water. It’s a testament to the will of mystic power, and parallels can be drawn from the story of Rasputin to the story of Mastodon, who after getting knocked down, just keeps coming back stronger than ever.

Although the four suites of "The Czar" last nearly 11 minutes, it’s not the longest track on the album. That honor goes to closer "The Last Baron," which, clocking in at 13 minutes exactly, follows a similar vignette template as that of "The Czar." The beginning of the track finds Hinds exultantly intoning "I guess they would say/ We could set the world ablaze." Its 13 minutes of build-ups, denouements, and metal meanderings is perhaps Mastodon’s most triumphant moment, a killer way to end a killer album.

Mastodon has publicly stated that their aim is to make albums in the same spirit as that of their heroes Metallica, and like those mid-period records like Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets, Crack the Skye has the feel of a classic metal album, steeped in impressive musicianship and stylized construction; it’s the kind of album you can repeatedly rock out to without ever feeling the desire to skip even one moment of its sprawling majesty.

1. Oblivion
2. Divinations
3. Quintessence
4. The Czar
5. Ghosts of Karelia
6. Crack the Skye
7. The Last Baron

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