Mastodon Crack The Skye- 2009
RMR Album Rating- 7
With Mastodon’s 4th release Crack The Skye, they continue further into the sludge-progressive metal genre that they are helping spearhead. The album is presented as a concept album just like Mastodon’s two preceding albums— Leviathan from 2004 and Blood Mountain from 2006. Conceptually, Crack the Skye presents a dreamlike, adventure story that is centered around two epic 10+ minute tracks that take up half the album, and because these tracks take up so much of the album, your enjoyment of the album will really be predicated on how much these epic tracks resonate with you.
I also want to point out that Mastodon is helping to push progressive-metal out of the safe house of glass shattering falsettos, and super speedy synchronized instrumental fills, where the genre has lived for the past two decades. Instead, Mastodon has always taken a different approach to progressive metal. For the most part, they are no less technically proficient than any other progressive metal band, and their music is just as instrumentally complex, but they present their songs in a much different way. Mastodon’s sound is very heavy, yet for the most part it is very slow and brooding, with some faster sections mixed in for diversity, and this style is very indicative of sludge-metal, where Mastodon’s roots are still firmly planted.
If we look back at progressive metal starting with the proto-progressive metal style that Rush architected in the late 70’s, Rush was really a mix of Led Zeppelin’s power and Yes’ technical proficiency. Then if you look at Dream Theater, they combined Yes, Rush, and Metallica. Mastodon leaves out the Keyboard/ guitar synchronization of Yes and the thrash sound of Metallica, but they bring in the slow ominous sound of early Black Sabbath and pair that with the progressive elements and power of Rush, and that is a really exciting combination. So, you still have layers upon layers of searing guitar work from Brent Hinds and Bill Kelleher and a great rhythm section of Troy Sanders on bass and Brann Dailor on drums, but don’t expect any lighting fast keyboard fills or thrash metal style double bass drum blasts. Dailor’s drumming style is much more focused on his hand work, which is simply amazing. The last element of their sound is the vocals which are another parallel back to Black Sabbath, as Brent Hinds’ clean vocals sound very reminiscent of Ozzy’s vocals, but he also incorporates near death metal growls during the heavier sections of the songs, and his deeper growling tone fits those musical sections very well.
As for the concept of the album, I’ll first point out that it finishes the sequence of elemental themes presented on the preceding three albums: Remission- was fire, Leviathan- was water, Blood Mountain- was earth, and now Crack The Skye- is air. The Concept itself, as mentioned, is really presented as an adventure story that deals with the out of body experiences of a paraplegic who ends up getting involved in Russian assignations, encounters with the Devil, and a race to get home to his physical body before he dies. Because the album is presented as a narrative, it very easily could have come across as trite and cliché, but it doesn’t, and the lyrics are ambiguous enough that the story never gets in the way of the music. Ultimately, the album functions how a good concept album should function. The story is interesting, and it is there if the listener wants to follow it, but the album can easily be enjoyed without the concept as well. In my opinion, if the concept of any album takes precedence over the music and lyrics, then the album will typically fail to register with me, and this is definitely not the case on Crack The Skye.
Another deal breaker on concept albums for me is often the run time of the album and the ordering of songs. There are certainly exceptions, but if any album—especially a concept album—is too long, I often lose interest. Crack The Skye steers clear of this pitfall completely, as its run time is right at 50-minutes, and it is structured around just 7 songs: 2 epic longer pieces, and then 5 additional shorter songs. All the songs on the album are good, but the real highlights for me are “Oblivion” and “Ghost of Karelia,” but therein lies a problem— the highlights should be the two epic tracks “The Czar” and “The Last Baron.”
These two tracks take up half of the album; they are the most progressive pieces of music on the album, and if Mastodon had nailed these two extended tracks, they would have created the absolute pinnacle of sludge-progressive rock, but they didn’t, and the songs fail to produce any real wow-moments.
In order for an extended progressive track to really succeed, it needs some sort of sonic climax (a real zenith) somewhere in the song. The best extended tracks use long build-ups that explode into crescendo at some point late in the song. Or, there will be a hook that is just teased throughout the song and then fully developed later in the song. Another alternative would be to throw in a really unique and infectious choral bridge that you spend the whole song waiting for. There are loads of ways to make an extended track exciting, and at least some of these elements are incorporated into the best extended progressive tracks, but neither “The Czar” or “The Last Baron” has any of these elements, so both songs tend to drag. Now with that being said, neither song is bad. Plus, both tracks are packed with plenty of maze like instrumental twists and turns; however, neither of the songs have any of those standout dynamic moments to make them truly memorable. So, although I don’t consider these two songs failures, I certainly wouldn’t call them complete successes either.
Click here to listen to The Czar
Click here to listen to The Last Baron
I don’t want to end on a bad note with Crack The Skye because it’s not a bad album, but it fails to reach its potential with its two epic tracks, and the shorter tracks end up outshining the longer tracks. I really like that Mastodon has taken their sludge-metal foundation and made it more progressive with every release, and I hope they continue to head in this direction, but they will need to create more of an emotional roller coaster of music to really compete with the best progressive music.
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