Mastodon Stomp Back: Crack The Skye Reviewed Track-By-Track
, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.