Review Summary: A strange journey into the occult that leaves the listener with an earful of amazing riffs but not much more.
When dealing with a genre like metal that prides itself on extremes, there's the issue of escalation to worry about. How does one follow the most face-melting and brutal album ever? Fans expect more than the same riffs but played faster and heavier, which leads bands to expand their sound in a variety of ways, both successful and unsuccessful. Dillinger Escape Plan's Calculating Infinity
was technically mind-blowing but also a difficult pill to swallow in its inclusion of free jazz harmonies, diminished scales, and time signatures generated randomly by rolling a 20-sided die. Instead of pushing themselves towards even more alienating but impressive territory, they released Miss Machine
, an album that embraced accessibility and a few normal musical conventions, which helped them undercut fan expectations and release an album that was more or less positively received. Other metal bands haven't been so successful. For every DEP there are countless Triviums, Avenged Sevenfolds, and Protest the Heros that find themselves trying to one up their past success or exploring unfortunate creative avenues, which is just a euphemism for hair metal or prog rock.
Mastodon, after producing the tight and by-the-book but highly enjoyable debut Remission
were in the business of meeting expectations. Their path led them to a fascination with a crunchier and hairier part of the metal pentagram (http://www.tinyurl.com/metuhl ). Their next album Leviathan
was a cornucopia of ominous clean tones, pentatonic riffs, 70s throwback vocals, and a fixation of all things mythological. Blood Mountain
expanded on this legacy moving from the ocean to the mountains. Their beards grew as did their propensity for winding instrumental passages and analog production values. Now that Crack the Skye
is here, Mastodon embrace prog, stoner metal, and the occult even more with ruminations of Rasputin and Black Sabbath vocals wailing out over the shred. Their escalation has sidestepped the need for heavier riffs and faster soloing by importing aesthetic and production. Mastodon have built themselves into a pagan orgy of thick but nimble riffs that separates them from the claustrophobic and polished sound that was so novel on Remission
But does it work? If looking no further than the technicality of the album, then yes, hell yes. There is really nothing bad that can be said about these guys as musicians. During Mastodon's heaviest and most brutal sections, the playing is urgent and tight, and during their more melodic passages, their riffs are original and convoluted and the drumming is spot on. In particular, their unorthodox approach to any one riff's contour keeps their music unexpected and exciting. For example, the post-chorus of "Quintessence," which converts the predictable chromatic and dissonant verses nicely into consonant major-key open-chord riffing, is an unexpected and refreshing melodicism in an otherwise lackluster song. Similarly, the lead guitar in the chorus of "Divinations" conjoins with the catchy 4-chord progression to elevate the song to some kind of elated and overbuilt cross between a ballad and an anthem. As for the drumming, though there are some ludicrously boring verses, Brann Dailor shows that he's strongest when the band works itself into strange, tight corners that can only be escaped by ultra precise and busy drum fills. The playing here is truly spectacular and for that you've got to tip your ushanka to Mastodon.
But in a move that is so classically metal it feels cliché, Crack the Skye
has little else going for it other than technical proficiency. Crack the Skye
is the overly muscled bodybuilder: an attention-grabbing spectacle on the surface, but ultimately sort of a joke. Tracing the steps to see where Mastodon went wrong is easy. In the aforementioned quest for escalation, they stumbled upon coveys of farcical lore, prog, 70s psychedelia, and Ozzy Osbourne's recent performances of old Black Sabbath material, which creates a perfect storm of kitsch and gimmicks. The first signs of Mastodon's undoing are in their absurd concept. Rasputin is an awesome and enigmatic historical character, but the way they attempt to lyrically and musically reanimate him is hard to take seriously. Lyrically, the listener is the beneficiary the most epic fee-fi-fo-fum drivel churned out this side of Mordor (delivered by the painfully heady and nasal vocals of Brent Hinds). With stanzas like this choice nug...
Faltering footsteps, dead end path / All that I need is this wise man's staff / Encased in crystal, he leads the way / I guess they'd say we could set the world ablaze.
...it's difficult to take the whole conceptual backdrop of the album seriously. On top of that shaky structure the technicality and showiness of the album's music starts to feel like a house of cards. On any given song I find myself questioning whether the bombast and soloing is meant to be taken at face value, metal horns flaring, or whether it's an ironic aesthetic detachment meant to be evil-sounding and epic for its own sake. Take the solo on "Divinations," which sounds like it's a purposefully bad Kerry King shred imitation, and then hold that up against the much more animated, interesting, and straight up catchy classic rock solo towards the end of "The Czar." One is empty and laughably br00tal and the other is evocative, but they feel isomorphic in the confused logic of Crack the Skye
's unnaturally epic and mystical aesthetic.
Even if Mastodon has their story straight, I don't think I care much for either alternative. Mastodon's best moments come from when they forget they are a metal band entirely, but don't do so through the artifice of genre-dropping. The choruses of the first two songs "Oblivion" and "Divinations" are melodic and exciting passages that build an energy that is completely smothered by the rote copying and pasting of boorish palm-muted chugging in the verses. Unfortunately, when Mastodon purposefully subvert their role as metal gods by working in other influences and musical ideas, Crack the Skye
comes across as contrived and half-baked. The proggy tuplet-divided breakdowns that occur around 6:01 in "The Last Baron" undo the sick riffing that builds into that section for the proceeding minute. The ominous and brooding jam that opens "The Czar" is tedious and sloppy, delaying the onslaught of riffs that manage to defibrillate the song at around 5:08. When writing songs it seems like Mastodon are at their best when they're not
being extreme or attempting to escalate their game. The predictable brutality of their metal and the willful zaniness of their prog and psychedelic influences are alienating and laughable, especially when modest combinations of the two that dabble in more standard melodic / harmonic ideas create the most memorable parts.
Admittedly, for many listeners, breaking down Crack the Skye
's crests and troughs will be a futile and unnecessary task. Despite how little control Mastodon have over their meandering storyline and patchwork songwriting, they still wield enough serpentine riffs to consistently resuscitate an album that would be an unholy mess in the hands of lesser musicians. In short this album is heavy, epic, and brings the shred, which are the only three items on the checklist for 80% of those buying this album. For metal devotees seeking heaviness and shred paired with otherworldly curio, Crack the Skye
is the be all and end all, but for anybody without a Celtic Frost tattoo, do not follow "the wise man's staff / Encased in crystal."