Without getting into the debate as to whether Crack the Skye is Mastodon’s best album to date, one would be wise to just point out its differences, both strengths and shortcomings, and leave it to the fans to do the ranking.
On first listen, Crack the Skye will immediately stand out for its easily noticeable absence of screamed vocals. Troy Sanders uses his clean voice on almost all the tunes, with very few exceptions. Without doubt, it will take some time to get used to his style, but repeat listens only serve to solidify one’s opinion that the songs on this disc have been composed in such a style to sound much better with this approach. Pain-ridden vocals pop up only to provide contrast to the more melodious direction taken in spots. The chorus on “Ghost of Karelia”, for instance, proves all the more powerful as the vocals shift from the mostly clean style to somewhat aggressive outbursts.
The guitar tandem of Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher lend the songs a solid, unbreakable facade, which elevates them to a whole new level. From the apocalyptic opening chords of “Oblivion”, chock full of despondent riffs and rock-based guitar solos; to the calculated riffery of “Divinations”, they implant dynamics to the compositions through and through. Rather than entirely focusing on heavy, punishing jackhammer riffery, this time around they also utilise progressive metal-like jam sessions and blues-inflected passages. As a result, the constant shifting of dynamics on “Quintessence” renders the tune more creative and interesting.
The ten-minute epic “The Czar” is built upon flawless songwriting and mood construction. Broken down into four parts, it launches into an unadulterated groove from the mellow “Usurper” to “Escape”, though the vocal melody on this one is not among Mastodon’s best. With “Martyr,” things retreat back to clean acoustic lines before picking up the trademark Mastodon riffs and seguing into a wonderful blues-inflected solo.
Scott Kelly from the amazing Neurosis continues the tradition to guest on Mastodon discs (he also sang on Leviathan and Blood Mountain) and appears on the title track, among the album’s most progressive pieces as it strangely recalls 90’s King Crimson in the way the guitars have been arranged. The guitar solo on this track is among the best ever!
As stated above, how Crack the Skye will rank in Mastodon’s catalog remains to be seen. However, from a production standpoint, it is by far the band’s best-sounding album. It was produced by the great Brendan O’Brien whose resume includes all kinds of different artists, from Pearl Jam to Stone Temple Pilots to Bruce Springsteen to AC/DC to Aerosmith to name but a few. O’Brien has managed to create a dense album with many layers, thick guitar tapestries, and heavy, solid drum and bass battery. He was also unafraid to render sound effects on Sanders’ voice with great results.
The album title is a homage to drummer Brann Dailor’s sister Skye Dailor who committed suicide at the age of 14, so this is obviously among the more personal musical statements of the band.