ROUND TABLE REVIEW
Tracklist: Oblivion (5:45), Divinations (3:38), Quintessence (5:26), The Czar [I. Usurper, II. Escape, III. Martyr, IV. Spiral] (10:52), Ghost Of Karelia (5:23), Crack The Skye (5:53), The Last Baron (12:59)
Tom De Val's Review
Mastodon have come a long way since their debut full length Remission back in 2002, when they were essentially an aggressive sludge metal outfit, albeit an extremely technically gifted one. 2004’s Leviathan, whilst maintaining an extreme edge, was essentially a concept album (based on Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick) and was full of progressive flourishes and more unorthodox song structures.
Following a move to a major label, the Warner-owned Relapse, the band relaxed the aggression still further, but this could hardly be called a sell-out (although unsurprisingly some still did), as the band came out with Blood Mountain, an even more experimental and genre-defying set of songs. As much as I enjoyed the album, it was probably my least favourite thus far, with few of the songs leaving a strong lasting impression. In many ways it was very much a transitional album, and with Crack The Skye you feel that the band have now completed their transformation from ferocious metallers to full-blown prog rockers – albeit still one that may not appease those stuck in a world where The Flower Kings et al are still the only accepted heir apparent to the original seventies innovators such as Yes and Genesis. But for the more open-minded progressive rock fan – hopefully the majority of the readers of this site – there is plenty to get your teeth into here.
It seems surprising that, as the band have got more popular, the concepts around which their albums are based have got more ‘out there’ – and Crack The Skye is certainly, if not quite in The Mars Volta’s league in terms of sheer lyrical strangeness, hardly possessed of a linear storyline. Boasting references to astral projection, wormholes, Rasputin, a Czarist conspiracy and various out of body experiences, I won’t try and describe the convoluted story-line here, but would instead lead readers to the brief synopsis on the band’s Wikipedia entry, or to Brann Dailor’s explanation on the bonus DVD. Despite its strangeness, it makes more sense than, say, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, and the lyric sheet makes interesting reading.
In contrast to boneshakers like The Wolf Is Loose and Blood And Thunder which have kicked off past Mastodon albums, the opening cut on Crack The Skye, Oblivion, is a more restrained affair, at least in terms of aggression. Its’ not entirely devoid of metallic crunch, as witnessed by the swaggering riff that is gradually built up at the start of the song, which morphs into a verse where drummer Brann Dailor is kept busy, laying on plenty of his trademark fills as he also intones the defiantly proggy lyrics – the opening line “I flew too close to the sun before it was time” certainly sets the tone for what is to come. In keeping with the band’s habit of spreading the vocal duties around, bassist Troy Sanders picks up the slack on the more direct bridge section before guitarist Brent Hinds delivers the memorable, almost melancholic chorus in a Southern-tinged style that also recalls Ozzy Osbourne’s vintage style. The highlight of this song is the instrumental section, where there is an almost bluegrass-ish section where a banjo is clearly heard (bit of a Mastodon trademark!) before Hinds reels off a fine solo, morphing from a technical, note-heavy beginning to a ringing, soaring lead in the final stages. The attention to detail the band bring to the backing instrumentation here is also noteworthy.
Following this is Divinations, the first track released from the album and easily the most instantly catchy and direct one on the record. The band once again take some time in creating and establishing the main riff which drives the song through a powerful verse to a more melodic, and very memorable, chorus where its hard to believe that the crystal clear, harmonised vocals are the work of the same people who growled with such menace on the earlier albums.
Quintessence is probably a more interesting track, being less immediate but rewarding repeated listens. Dailor’s frenetic but controlled drumming drives the verse which features a spiralling riff and a definite spacey, almost Hawkwind-like tinge to the vocals, before an almost trance-like bridge contrasts with the enthusiastically gung-ho chorus with its cries of “Let It Go”. Dailor certainly shines on this song and you can happily just hone in on his playing at the expenses of the other instrumentation and still be enthralled. The latter section of the song features some Mastodon-patented fuzzed-up, down-tuned riffs and fine duelling twin guitar work from Hinds and fellow six-stringer Bill Kelleher.
Next up is the first of the two epics. The Czar is, in true prog style, split into four distinct but related sections; the first of these, Usurper, opens with a keyboard doing a fine imitation of that most prog of instruments, a church organ. Gradually jangling guitars, a slothful bass figure and some slightly sedated sounding vocals intoning rather sinister lyrics (“Don’t stay run away/ He has ordered assassination”) enter the fray, with the organ staying high in the mix. A rolling, heavy riff – not dissimilar to the one which drives Black Sabbath’s Hole In The Sky – rides in as we move to the Escape section. There’s a real groove to the music here, and whilst it features some more familiarly aggressive vocals on the verse, there’s some altogether more off-the-wall and vaguely disconcerting call and response stuff on the chorus. An abrupt shift in emphasis brings us to Martyr, which boasts a slower, more anthemic style (accompanied by lyrics such as “Spiralling up through the crack in the sky”) and lots exploratory guitar work, before we come full circle on Spiral, the organ playing us out.
After this multi-faceted piece, Ghost Of Karelia is perhaps a little more straightforward in tone, although that’s speaking in relative terms! The cymbal-heavy intro (not to mention the determined bashing of a giant gong!) leads us into a mid-paced section where Troy Sanders’ bass dictates the rhythmic changes. The vocals are worth concentrating on here; skittish and ethereal in the verse, this is followed by some fine close-harmonising in the chorus, before the rolling riffs and double-bass drums kick the song on and we get a more aggressive accompanying delivery. Given its title, its appropriate that the song maintains a ghostly, ethereal feel throughout, even through the more chaotic latter part of the record where the band slide in and out of the heavier sections and lighter, more reflective moments. It’s also worth noting the various sound effects going on in the background, which really add to the song’s atmosphere.
The title track boasts an appropriately epic-sounding introduction, heavy on the power chords, whilst the vocals run the gamut between borderline-growls to clear harmonies which probably stretch the band member’s ranges to their limit. The chorus is more traditional Mastodon, and the guitar solo which follows is heavy on the whammy bar. The most interesting part of the song is where the band go into space-rock territory once again, complete with vocals fed through a vocoder and some ‘out-there’ guitar work.
The final piece is the thirteen odd-minute The Last Baron. Despite its length, it is actually a more cohesive piece than The Czar, although I’ll admit to not finding it of quite the same high quality – the repeated melodies do get a little stale after a while. That said, there’s still plenty to enjoy here, from the deceptively mellow but impassioned opening, with its fine vocal harmonising, to the more spacey sections featuring tight, coiled riffs and treated, hysteria-tinged vocals which recall the work of Norwegian space-prog metallers Arcturus. The zany instrumental section which suddenly erupts from nowhere, where Zappa-esque, avant jazz-style guitar work, backed up by hectic tabla thumping butts up against banjo-led, techno-metal craziness, is probably the track’s highlight; there’s a long, indulgent guitar solo towards the end of the track that also seems entirely appropriate, before it gradually subsides, the album ending with some haunting, icy keyboard work.
Having worked with a single producer (Matt Bayles) on all their previous work, this time Mastodon, perhaps befitting their major label status, have gone with a ‘big name’ producer, Brendan O’Brien. Although known for his work with more mainstream acts such as AC/DC and Pearl Jam, O’Brien seems to have understood exactly what Mastodon were looking for here, and the sound is rich and full throughout, with the band’s trademark sound shining through. It’s also to O’Brien’s credit that, even though there seem to be a hundred things going on at once at times, each instrument can be clearly heard throughout, making this a treat for audiophiles.
Finally, no review of a Mastodon album can be complete without a mention for the distinctive artwork of Paul Romano. A real argument for buying a physical copy of the album rather than an MP3 (I’m sure the double gatefold version is even more spectacular!), his distinctive illustrations, full of clawing bears, bearded Rasputins, Russian citadels and flaming suns really work in context with the music and lyrics to help give the album a unifying, cohesive feel.
As an additional aside, its definitely worth getting edition of the album which includes an additional DVD; this is basically the story of Crack The Skye, from its inception down to completion, and sees the band members providing (in amongst the expected goofing around) some insightful commentary as to how the album came about, and how the various tracks were written and recorded.
Overall, having lived with this album for several months now, I can confidently say that it’s a stayer, with plenty to dig into even after numerous listens. It’s a more fully developed and interesting work than Blood Mountain, and although I occasionally miss the sheer primal energy and drive of Mastodon’s earlier albums, and still rate Leviathan a little ahead of this one, its nonetheless it’s a great achievement for the band. With their high profile showing no signs of slipping, Mastodon should succeed further in introducing elements of progressive rock to a modern mainstream audience.
Hector Gomez's Review
I thought progressive metal was dead. Probably Dream Theater and their million tribute bands killed it, when they stopped progressing (in the case of Mike Portnoy and Co., this happened after the release of Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, their last interesting effort, in 2002, though I’ll admit I still manage to “enjoy” their latest albums). And it’s strange, because being music fans (geeks, dare I say) themselves, the “forefathers of prog metal” keep praising new bands and even invite them to play on their tours (Progressive Nation being the clearest example), but don’t seem to learn anything from them. Oh, well, what a shame…
Not being a “metalhead”, but enjoying hard rock and heavy metal bands nonetheless (mostly the classics), lately I’ve found myself delving into the mists of extreme metal, as I think that’s where you can find the most interesting progressive metal music these days. Being an “underground” act definitely gives you more creative freedom; well, that’s what I thought, because the bands and artists I’m talking about are becoming increasingly popular: Opeth, Meshuggah, The Mars Volta, Between The Buried And Me, Devin Townsend, Isis, Pelican, Gojira… Each one with their own brand of death, black, thrash or whatever metal genre you want to call it, but always experimenting, proposing new ideas and walking unknown paths with often great instrumental expertise.
Mastodon belong to this “new” batch of bands, and after three increasingly good, but not particularly impressive albums (Remission in 2002, Leviathan in 2004 and Blood Mountain in 2006), have finally managed to craft a wonderful, great piece of progressive metal. Crack The Skye is, indeed, their best album to date and the 2009 release I’ve enjoyed the most so far.
Looking for great riffs? Check. Need great drumming? Check. Like wonderful guitar solos? Check. Interested in a perfect balance of melody, raw power and technicality? Check. Add a weird but surprisingly emotional concept that runs throughout the album (the previous albums represented fire, water and earth respectively; this one seems to refer to air and/or the spiritual and intangible world… and Rasputin), and truly colorful, psychedelic eye catching artwork (as always with Mastodon, created by the great Paul Romano who, like Roger Dean with Yes or Hugh Syme with Rush, should be considered a member of the band) and you get a winning formula.
The music on Crack The Skye is a melting pot of genres and references where there’s room for Black Sabbath style vocals (and some riffs…), Rush inspired instrumentals (there’s even an obvious nod to YYZ on The Last Baron), the angularity and intricacies of King Crimson, and the power of the greatest thrash (Metallica) and epic (Iron Maiden) metal bands. But, if I had to compare Mastodon with one band, I’d definitely go for Voïvod, a great (and criminally underrated; try Nothingface (1989) for some truly inspiring music) band from Canada which was (are?) crucial for the development of prog metal.
There are no fillers on this album. Oblivion opens with eerie bass and guitar, to suddenly move to chugging guitars and energetic drumming. It’s the Mastodon we know, but with a new edge. Vocals are clean, and remain this way for most of the CD, save a few screams here and there, and very varied, as both guitarist Brent Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders (even drummer Brann Dailor contributes some nice singing) share the mic.
As on almost every track, there’s an excellent combination of metallic assault, proggy intricacies and catchy melodies. This also applies to Divinations, the shortest and probably heaviest song on the album, and the one which will remind you of “old” Mastodon the most (it could have been on Blood Mountain, banjo included). Quintessence progs things up, and again features Dailor’s superb drumming (still impressive without using a huge kit, but a bit toned down from previous albums) and a strong, infectious chorus, but this is all only an appetizer for the next piece, the epic The Czar. Ten minutes of metal bliss divided in four naturally flowing movements, from the opening notes of a creepy organ (Usurper), through an ever shifting ride (Escape, Spiral) where historical (Russia in the times of Czars) drama and tragedy (“don’t stay, run away…”) move forward via some seriously chunky groove metal (on Martyr there’s even room for a lovely tambourine). Makes your heart and brain jump together, and that’s no mean feat.
Before we get to the end of the album (and to another brilliant epic), there’s two more medium length songs, Ghost Of Karelia being the most interesting, with its bells and gongs managing to somehow evoke the cold vastness of Russia. Strangely enough (or maybe not), the title track is the least interesting on the CD, being a tad repetitive but, after all that has been going on before, and what’s yet to come, this is a minor complaint.
To wrap things up in truly magnificent style, The Last Baron, 13 minutes of relentless inventiveness rivaling with The Czar for the award of “best track on the album”. I’m sure you’ll love both, and will keep changing your mind as to choose which one is your favourite. Right now, I think I’d go for The Last Baron, but both are terrific for sure. Even if their structure is similar, where Czar is more emotional and nuanced, Baron goes more the prog metal fest way, focusing on the music, the chops and the riffs.
I strongly recommend you to get the edition with the bonus DVD, where you can find some clues (I’ll only say Brann Dailor’s late sister name was Skye) to the story on the CD, and also get to know band members closely and find a bunch of down to earth, humble (and lovingly geeky: check Brent Hinds’ huge collection of Creature From The Black Lagoon figures, check Bill Keliher’s Star Wars memorabilia museum) chaps with a passion for music which is the fire that ignites their creativity.
Menno von Brucken Fock's Review
Mastodon originates from Atlanta (Georgia, USA) and is celebrating their tenth anniversary. Originally fully into ‘sludge metal’ and inspired by bands like Thin Lizzy and Neurosis, the band now presents their fifth full length album and they took their time to make it something special. Before going into the studio the band had been touring for over 13 months. They were also support act for Metallica. If you count the number of tattoos of the four guys together it will be an impressive figure, as we can find with musicians playing hard rock, death metal and related genres. Because lead-guitarist Brent Hinds was in the hospital for a while, seriously injured, but he came out of his coma and although he suffered from vertigo for months, eventually regained all of his functions. This, the suicide of drummer Brann Dailor’s younger sister “Skye” at the age of 14 (Brann being 15 years old at the time) and the cooperation with producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, Black Crowes) were the ingredients with which Mastodon put together a different, more complex and lyrically more personal album than the previous four.
The DVD contains ‘the making of’ Crack The Skye. The musicians are actually writing and arranging most of the material in the rehearsal room. The members of the band comment on the essential of each track and why they are so proud of what they have achieved with this album. A photo gallery, some live shots and images of their work in the studio complete this DVD, a valuable addition to the album.
Oblivion starts with a heavy sounding plucking of the guitar, the rest of the band joins in and we have a true metal sound comparable to Metallica. The tempo changes, speeds up and we here riffs and somewhat raw vocals. But compared to earlier work, now it’s singing instead of shouting. Even harmonies can be heard, amongst others in the chorus, which has a different tempo again. Some nice guitar solos and very nice orchestrations by new band member Rich Morris. Divinations opens with Brent playing the banjo, soon the guitars take over and are played by the same kind of plucking. The riffs come but in the background the fingers still keep running across the neck of the guitars; an up tempo rather brutal metal track. In Quintessence we hear the guitars being used again not to play simple chords, but instead a more difficult approach by using a plucking technique playing the notes very rapidly within a certain chord. The drumming is also not too easy, multiple patterns and richly filling. Some nice keyboards in here too. The first epic is called The Czar, opening with a psychedelic organ. The guitars take over but the drumming and the whole atmosphere remains relaxed and the two vocals (one an octave lower than the other), are mellow as well. The middle section is more heavy and comes close to some of the music by Ozzy Osbourne. The last section is more melodic, definitely holding progressive elements and a stunning guitar solo by Hinds.
Ghost Of Karelia combines progmetal with ‘creepy classic rock’ (the latter term comes from Brann Dailor), only powerful vocals of someone like Russell Allen are sadly missed. In the title tracks I hear some Wishbone Ash influences, but more heavy. The addition of keyboards and the melodies are a bit of a contrast compared to the more brutal vocals and heavier riffs. The last track is the second epic, clocking almost 14 minutes: The Last Baron, referring to Baron von Richthofen, although in the lyrics I can’t find very much about the actual person. A Floydian organ and a slightly psychedelic atmosphere, but the guitar plucking with the rather heavy distorted sound, remind us this still is heavy metal, as keeps popping up with some more powerful up tempo parts. In the middle section much more power, and a lot of fine drumming by Dailor. This part ends in a prog-metallic way. The next bit is inspired by seventies prog but played a bit more heavy. The songs ends with a sort of guitar orgasm. Throughout the whole album I sense traces of Presto Ballet too, a band also inspired by the harder rocking progressive music from the seventies.
Obviously Crack The Skye defines a new chapter in Mastodon’s career. Although I’m not too impressed by the vocals, at least there’s singing instead of screaming & shouting and the four members of the band definitely know who to master their consecutive instruments. For genuine progheads this album may still be a bridge too far, but for fans of hard rock and heavy metal with a progressive touch, this album is absolutely worth checking out.
TOM DE VAL : 8.5 out of 10
HECTOR GOMEZ : 8.5 out of 10
MENNO VON BRUCKEN FOCK : 6.5 out of 10