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Mastodon Stomp Back: Crack The Skye Reviewed Track-By-Track
John Doran , February 25th, 2009 05:11

After a turbulent couple of years, Mastodon return with their fourth album Crack The Skye. A song about Tsarist Russia in four parts, you say? John Doran sits back to bathe himself in prog.

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The first track on Mastodon's fourth studio album begins with an ominous sound indeed. The tri-chord has formed the basis of classic metal since time began (well, the late 60s anyway) and the opening of 'Oblivion' links us back to the canon via Slayer's 'Dead Skin Mask'. It feels like it is making the bold claim: you're going to be listening to this album in ten or twenty years time. Perhaps it is true that great art is born out of periods of intense upheaval and uncertainty - two things that Mastodon have had in spades since the release of their last album, Blood Mountain on Warners. After appearing at MTV's Video Awards Show in 2007, frontman Brent Hinds (guitars/vocals) ended up in hospital after a brawl that reportedly involved Shavo from System of a Down and the musician William Hudson. Whatever the story (the band have refused to talk about the incident), after a life-threatening brain heomorrhage Hinds was lucky to recover sufficiently to be able to record this album. Add to this the fact that the band have been operating recently as a three piece after the other guitarist Bill Kelliher had to go back to Atlanta with that most musicianly of disorders, 'exhaustion', and you get a picture of a real rock & roll band - for better and for worse. Anyway, some of this dynamism seems to have crept onto this disc, as if by unstoppable osmosis. However, on the evidence of the first track, their experiences have made them more considered rather than angry or wild. There is an exciting and vital solo by Brent, which seems to say, 'Fuck you, I'm better, this thing didn't touch me.' But as a whole, this is certainly more restrained than anything off Blood Mountain. Surprisingly enough, the band whose name came up when I initially heard this record was Soundgarden.


There is a staccato introduction on what sounds like a ukulele and the kind of proggy, folk metal with Eastern tinges that System of a Down specialize in. As we all know, Mastodon is all about Brann Dailor's drumming - as great as the other members are - and if his stick work took a back seat on 'Oblivion' it's right out at the forefront here, where it should be. He is in fact in Buddy Rich vs Animal of the Muppets with a side helping of Dave Lombardo and spirit of John 'Stumpy' Pepys. And if you don't know who he is then you shouldn't even be reading this. The shredding on this track is a lot more far out. It's as if they've done a classic underground album (Remission), they've done a classic death metal album (Leviathan); they've done a classic, let's-throw-everything-into-the-mix album (Blood Mountain) and now they're going for a classic popular metal album. And if on 'Oblivion' they sounded slightly like sulky teenagers who actually would sooner be doing anything else, by 'Divinations' it sounds like they've warmed to the task entirely.


Yet more mod-prog, post SOAD, tuneful complexity. Simplistic MUSE arpeggios are smashed apart and then reassembled in odd forms and shapes as if to unsettle the listener while simultaneously rocking them. But persevere with it and this is an oddly beautiful song punctuated with bursts of (Dave Grohl-period) Killing Joke ferocity. Satisfying bass riffs play against complex finger tapped passages and once again they break open the Satanic voice effects pedal that they first started to mess about with on Blood Mountain.

'The Czar'

i) Usurper
Apparently this song was inspired by little black lacquer boxes that the band bought while on tour in Russia. The theme extends out of the lyrics and into the sonics given that it has a sombre, totalitarian feel and a hint of Eastern European folk to it. This is not a million miles away from being a reach-clench-press-fist-to-chest power ballad and as Brent tells the listener to "runaway, don't stay" while warning of "assassination", you can't help but wondering if this was one of the first songs written in the sessions for the album when it was rumoured that it was going to be about the mad monk, Rasputin - who was certainly a usurper in the Tsar's court.

ii) Escape
A grinding art-tooled riff comes on like Opeth and ramps up the heaviness. This is awesome groove metal that reminds you of that terrible bit of the 90s when everything in mainstream metal was shit apart from the sheer brilliance of the riffology of Pantera and Tommy Victor's playing in Prong.

iii) Martyr
OMG!!! The intro to this song, with loads of multi-tracked close part harmonies through loads of effects is really reminiscent of 10cc's 'I'm Not In Love'! This is a very classic rock friendly section and it's not just the vocal harmonies but the windswept, 'November Rain' style solo as well. There are a lot of prog references on this album and I'm not talking 'trendy, it's alright to own up to listening to this prog' but Yes, Rush and King Crimson style prog. But this song . . . well, it's only a gnat's chuff away from being like Marillion and that won't do. I can't work out how I feel about 'The Czar' and I'd be surprised if another 28 listens made the situation any clearer.

iv) Spiral
Gentle, icicle shattering percussiveness gives way to power metal riffola. To call this section pseudo-classical is to do it a disservice. It has all the sense of occasion of Ravel; all the depressive grandeur and bombast of Mahler. The section works fine on its own but I'm starting to wonder - is too much of this album progressive, neo-classical metal? Where are the tracks for those who want to raise the horns and rock until their balls drop off?

'Ghost of Karelia'

Well, this song certainly redresses the balance somewhat. It has the signature Mastodon sound of roiling drum work that boils like a rough sea with thunderous and clangorous riffage that sounds like two mighty ships firing their canons at one another, and incongruously delicate hooks lightly picked over the top. Even though they've obviously become an entirely different beast to the one that released Leviathan, this is probably the most hook and tune filled thing they've done to date.

'Crack The Skye'

A squall of descending arpeggios lead into to some banging Ride The Lightning style riffage but - and I realise I'm going to get keel hauled for even suggesting this - is it just me or does the fact that the vocals switch between sweetly melodic, furrow browed sincerity and apocalyptic, raw throated bellowing, sound a bit . . . erm, emo? Moving swiftly on . . . [So you're saying a song by Mastodon, that features Scott Kelly of Neurosis on vocals, sounds "a bit emo" are you? There's nothing we can do to help you now - Witness Protection Scheme Editor]

'The Last Baron'

This may start off as a chiming low bpm number but its full 13 minutes lead us through an ever changing landscape of post metal texture. If the start of the album showed a band who were slightly unsure of their task to deliver a complex, prog-metal album to a mainstream audience, they certainly end with fire in their bellies. As a dyed in the wool fan of the band I've got to say that my gut feeling is that I'd sooner see them dealing in more post hardcore death metal, meting out anvil heavy breakdowns like, for example, 'Blood and Thunder' or 'Battle At Sea' or 'Slickleg'. This said, I'm also aware that you can't be the sort of person who just wants bands to continuously repeat themselves, to be the person still wanting Reign In Blood, 24 years after the fact. As it is we have one of only two bands (the other being SOAD) delivering relatively complex and heavy music on a mainstream stage and seen in that context their new album is, by and large, a success.

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Nigga Fatlip
Dec 31, 2008 9:16pm

Your review would have been infinitely better, more precise, and more respectable if you would have refrained from bringing up System of a Down every other sentence. You fucking cock sucker.

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El Beisch
Jan 1, 2009 3:23am

Agreed, my nigga.
These doots is changing the mainstream, still hangin' frames, and yet every comparison made is in effort to date the material.
Mastodon = Art Metal. Deengineering each track without lyrical analysis of theme coherence and relativity to its designated element is like describing an automobile as a box full of pipes painted blue.

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Hugh Platt
Jan 1, 2009 7:34am

I so want this record now.

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Robin Brown
Jan 1, 2009 9:47pm

Well, it certainly sounds interesting. I love Mastodons musical style (I agree that the previous output has been as much about Branns drumming as anything else) so I hope Crack The Skye doesn't turn out to be too intreverted. I'm reminded of the horror of the solo-free shoegazing atrocity which was St. Anger. I'd like to think that Mastodon have made an album we're all still listening to in 25 years time...I for one am still listening to Reign In Blood (but I don't expect Slayer to make another one...and would't want them too). As for the SOAD references, they seem like a one trick pony to me....let the abusive comments begin....

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John Doran
Jan 1, 2009 10:03pm

Woah, woah! That's English for stop a horse.

The SOAD comparisons are completely justified. You'll see when you hear the record.

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John Doran
Jan 1, 2009 10:04pm

Box of pipes painted blue? That's funny as fuck.

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Robin Brown
Jan 2, 2009 12:18am

Hmmm...Mr. Doran, I fear my grammar may have given away my geographical roots. As for the the SOAD comparisons, I think Mastodon are more akin to B***k 182 than Serj and the boys...I mean, they have tattoos too don't they? Are your comments pure speculation or do you have a cheeky whilte label copy of Crack The Skye lying around somewhere...

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Robin Brown
Jan 2, 2009 12:30am

OK, so you wrote the piece, I'll get my coat and never darken you door again. Thank you and goodnight.

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Joseph Stannard
Jan 3, 2009 1:19am

I don't think Brann Dailor would make any bones about his debt to Neil Peart of Rush - his punchy, punctuative style of drumming is remarkably close to that of Peart.

I'd take issue with King Crimson supposedly being an 'unfashionable' prog band - after all, this is the outfit that went on tour with Tool, have always dealt in sonic violence, who laid the foundation for sonic contortionists from Don Caballero to Meshuggah.

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Wayne Newton
Mar 4, 2009 6:11am

Comparing Mastodon to Syndrome of a Down just because there are some "eastern" sounding elements to the new album? Come on. Here's the main difference between the two bands.

Mastodon is awesome.
System of a Down is awesome... if you're 15.

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Patrick Buggy
Mar 19, 2009 2:43am

I'm confused as to the relevance of SOAD? Apart from the ruckus kicked up between Hinds and Odojian a year or two back. Mastodon have never cited them as an influence and nor has anyone pointed out any similarities to me - I certainly have never found any. Unless SOAD, Toxicity and That Other One were expansive, progressive concept albums? Harmonic minors aren't passed down from one band to the next on top of mountain tops, y'know.

As for "the tracks for those who want to raise the horns and rock until their balls drop off", if you want any from Mastodon then you have their early stuff. Expecting that from Mastodon now would be akin to expecting such music from Iron and Wine; they've made it quite clear in every interview and peice of literature connected with this record that they want to (and have) moved on. In this months Metal Hammer Hinds says of people that will hate the album for a lack of such songs - "fuck 'em."

I appreciate that it is largely a glowing review you have written, but to my eyes it nonetheless does the band a great disservice regarding the effort they have put in and the work they have produced.

I've listened to the album in full, and it's fucking awesome. Well worth every agonising second of my long and giddy wait.

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interview my cock
Apr 9, 2011 11:12pm

so if you have screaming and singing on the same track now you're emo?

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