Review Summary: Crack the Skye finds Mastodon continuing to tip the scales toward prog-metal vision, clean vocal harmonies and an increasingly diverse and expanding sound, playing like the most pertinent album from a seminal band in its prime.
As Crack the Skye
's brooding opener Oblivion takes its first breath, the beginning of a long journey is suggested. And while it takes a mere 57 seconds for our hero to go Icarus and melt his wings (or Golden Shell, as it were), Brann Dailor's story of a paraplegic star traveler has just gotten started -- and so has Mastodon.
If Blood Mountain's
rousing opener suggested Motörhead, Crack the Skye
's hints more at Alice in Chains. These different paths are somewhat representative of the (mainly) two types of Mastodon fan: Thrash/sludge metal OGs who were blown away by Remission
and prog rock fans who delighted in finding a cathartic sound was just proggy enough to allow themselves to be blown away by an actual
metal band. With Crack the Skye
, it is quickly apparent that the former may be slightly disappointed, while the latter will delight in Mastodon's near-complete conversion to full on prog band.
Back to Oblivion, where Dailor's surprisingly strong vocals have our limbless Picard imagining he's destroying his (non-existent?) hands in a doomed attempt to burrow into the earth and hide after his mighty fall. Even more surprising than Dailor's foray into lead vocals is the excellent harmony between bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds that makes up probably the best chorus on the album. Oblivion may not be the curb stomp that most fans would expect out of the gate, but Divination's banjo-from-hell intro, oppressively thick verse layers and anthemic chorus kick the first cracks in the Skye. Here, Hinds' vocals shine while alternating between Ozzy-like bombast and nose-bursting caterwaul. The band also unveils the first of several guitar solos that seem to evolve both technically and musically in order throughout the album.
Quintessence sees the joining of these divergent paths extending out from the first two songs. Employing both the new, slick sound and bursts of metal riffage, it culls the best of both to create -- not surprisingly -- the best song of the three. Especially poignant is the final minute of the song, which finds Sander's guttural growl warning "Shield failure!" while the wall of sound behind it performs a death march, moving toward the album's centerpiece.
The Czar is the first of two long players on the album. It pulls slowly and methodically out of the gate before transforming into mid-tempo heavy rock with more alternating clean vocals from Hinds and Sanders, while Dailor's Peart-meets-Star Wars lore tells takes us through our hero's unification and impending fall after being torn away from his new body -- Rasputin. (If you're lost, don't worry much about it. There's so much to digest here musically, most casual listeners won't bother with the song meanings until long after the initial spins -- if at all.)
This leads into a immense second guitar solo before coming to rest where it left off.
Ghost of Karelia instantly recalls Tool
's The Grudge before expanding into a dark pool of pleasing time signatures and mammoth verses delivered by Sander's patented whale calls. The song's moment of catharsis lies in the chorus, which begs "How long has it been since we flew through the shadows?" If it had been a while, the wait ends immediately with another excellent guest appearance by Neurosis' Scott Kelly on the album's title track. Like most every song present, Crack the Skye builds slowly before Bill Kelliher joins Hinds with a brutal dual guitar slab on which Kelly's throaty death-wail struts around until more clean vocal harmonies balance out the beastly verses. Dailor's spastic storytelling becomes obviously personal here, referencing his sister's suicide directly. Try not to shiver when Kelly takes his vocals up an octave to deliver the song's final verse, screaming out "Momma, don't let them take her! Don't let them take her down!"
Crack the Skye melts into what will be the album's magnum opus, The Last Baron. At 13 minutes, the song runs the gamut and really stretches the boundaries of each musician. Of The Czar and Last Baron, it is the latter that is truly the epic prog romp. Hinds and Kelliher rocket from tasty riff to tasty riff, challenging the listener's comfort zone and never settling into one pattern long enough to fall complacent. At one point, the band deftly channels Rush's YYZ and Zappa's Apostrophe-era noodling to create a refreshing flourish before ripping back into one of the many monumental grooves present in the song. The end result is the not just the completion our hero's story, but the exclamation point at the end of a sonic journey who's fifty minutes seem like they're up too soon.