I, like many, wasn’t sure what to expect from “Crack the Skye.” Early reports described it as “spacey” and “creepy,” with a classic rock feel, and the introduction of mainstream producer Brendan O’Brien raised further questions about the sound. Having heard the album, I can say that the change is fundamental: “Crack the Skye” is a metallic prog album, whereas Mastodon had previously been a metal band first and foremost, though one with progressive and technical tendencies. Fortunately, the album is not entirely lacking in the old Mastodon feel, with guitarwork and drumming that should be easily recognizable for any serious fan. The basic songwriting, however, is radically different. Whereas earlier works were primarily horizontal, emphasizing the progression through various sections, “Crack the Skye” is much more spacious and vertical, with densely layered arrangements of guitars (sludgy power chords, acoustic arpeggios, frantic leads often all at once) atop synths and unconventional percussion to aid the conventional rhythm section. Perhaps most significantly, the vox, originally barked and howled, are now almost entirely ethereal, gliding melodies at the center of the instrumental maelstrom. The feel is finally different: while “Blood Mountain” and “Remission” charged over the listener, “Crack the Skye” engulfs him. Because of this, nothing on “Crack the Skye” has the sheer visceral power of “Workhorse,” “Blood and Thunder” or “Capillarian Crest,” and those, like myself, who are primarily metal fans may not find the change totally ideal. Personally, though I can’t permanently rank it after only 15 or so listens, I seriously doubt I will ever like “Crack the Skye” as much as I do their previous three albums. This, however, speaks more to the excellence of those albums than to any weakness on this album’s part. On one level, this makes “Crack the Skye” even more impressive: while Mastodon have deemphasized much of what drew me to them initially, they’ve still crafted a terrific album that is sure to be amongst the year’s best, and which further secures their position as the metal band of the 00s.
All that said, I was not overly impressed on my initial listen. This isn’t surprising, as any dense album requires many listens to appreciate, but the relative weakness of the opening tracks is also a cause. “Oblivion” and “Divinations” are the most straight forward songs found here, making them both accessible and not particular striking. They’re solid, enjoyable songs, but, in spite of the elaborate production, amount to little more than an extended intro, a few riffs and vocal lines followed by a lead break. It’s always wise to include a relatively straightforward track or two on a dense album like this, but they aren’t as either ferocious or catchy as they ought to be. Here the more layered, less bruising production holds the album back, but the only other option would be to make these songs sound radically different from the others, an unwise stylistic choice.
Fortunately, from “Quintessence” on the album is terrific. Here the dynamic range is opened dramatically, with quick alterations between spidery licks, ghostly acoustics, and knotty, pounding riffage. Even better is “Ghost of Karelia,” which ratchets up the eerie eastern feel and adds rapid-fire time changes, while the title track creates a droning space-sludge atmosphere where the simple vocal melodies and piercing leads occasionally rise above the mass of sound. None of these three songs was especially striking initially, partially because they are so organically structured, but after a few listens the plain melodies insinuated themselves, and the dense arrangements are more fully revealed. These are great songs, and I’ve no doubt I’ll come to like them more.
Interestingly enough, the epics are actually the most immediately memorable songs. They are quite distinct: “The Czar” is probably my favorite track, with repetitive, instantly memorable vocal melodies paired with a driving, groovy middle break. Conversely, “The Last Baron” is the most conventionally Mastodon-style track despite the extreme length, with a brutally intense tech-metal middle break that reminds greatly of “Blood Mountain” and is highlighted by Dailor’s frenetic, fill-heavy drumming. (Which, somewhat sadly, is generally deemphasized here.) These tracks draw attention to themselves in a way that the others do not, but not so much that they seem out of place. They are meant to be the centerpieces of the album, and fulfill this role beautifully.
As good as the individual tracks are, “Crack the Skye” is better than the sum of its parts, largely because it is a concept album, which naturally seem more grandiose than conventional works when executed properly. The plot, a rather peculiar tale of astral projection, occult rituals and WWI-era Russia, doesn’t interest me much (though at least it isn’t so stupid as to detract from the album [Operation: Mindcrime, anyone?]), but it does manage a level of unity rare in the genre, and lacks the fat and senseless pyrotechnics that mar many prog metal albums. “Crack the Skye” is a concept album, but it never feels as though it has artificially been transformed into one, if you catch my meaning.
I will be curious to see where Mastodon go from here. They’ve already achieved a level of popularity far higher than I would’ve thought possible when I first heard “Remission,” and considering the surprising resurgence in prog, Mastodon may continue to rise. Again, part of me would prefer that they head back into more metallic arenas, but “Crack the Skye” is so good a first attempt that it’s conceivable that they could surpass those earlier works later in this new style. Whatever they do, I will look forward to it eagerly.
Check it out.