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Album Review: Mastodon – Crack the Skye (Reprise)

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MP3: Mastodon – The Last Baron

It would seem that the negative stereotypes of prog are falling to the wayside, as artists from all genres are inching more and more into the no-fly zone of progressive.  The Decemberists jumped into the deep end with their latest, and metal-masters Mastodon further entrench themselves with their most proggish album yet.  On Crack the Skye, Mastodon presents itself as a full-on progressive metal entity, the echoes of early Metallica that resonated strongly on Leviathan are much more subdued.  You should expect as much, looking at the absolutely over-the-top album artwork (I hope the guys are as big fans of Big Trouble In Little China as their Lo Pan-ish imagery suggests).

To a large extent, this move farther towards the progressive was inevitable when considering Mastodon’s catalog and approach.  With a historian’s measure of exactitude and the flourish of a great novelist, they have always crafted epic tales, grander than most in the genre topically, and nearly all technically bombastic without overstaying its welcome.  Leviathan drawing no trivial amount of inspiration from Moby Dick, or the epic fantasy of Blood Mountain.  Crack the Skye edges towards decidedly more sci-fi fare, interdimensional and inter-temporal travel being lynchpins to the pseudo-plot.

The ease with which “Oblivion” coasts through myriad epochs of metal both efficiently and proficiently would be astounding if it weren’t so damn well streamlined.  One moment channeling early Metallica, the next chugging through knee-deep sludge and doom riffs before emerging with soaring prog solos.  Vocalist Brent Hinds also frequently treads into Sabbath-era Ozzy.  The vertiginous spirals that open “Divinations” musically emulate spirits.  Grand, majestic chords set the tone for the open airiness of “Quintessence.”  The 10+ minute, mid-album stretch of “The Czar” grows from a mediocre trot to a fantastic, churning of whirlpool riffs before watershedding into ascendant guitar solos.  Similiarly, the even-longer “The Last Baron” features a similar track, ending the album with savage frenzy and finality.

All this would seem out of place if the album wasn’t concerned with telling the tale of a quadriplegic casting his astral projection into the sky, shunting into the spirit realm after getting too close to the sun.  The concepts are insanely far-flung, and perfectly match the music.  The fact that they include two 10-minute-plus marathons on the album without breaking its flow is a testament to how refined and focused their songcraft is.  

Unfortunately, I find there is little lasting value to all this, albeit impressive, technical pageantry.  A great trip while it lasts,  it leaves little in its wake, not unlike the perfectly-paced action movie with few explosively memorable scenes.  I found few, if any hooks that sunk deeply; such is the difficulty with much of prog, and why so many people avoid or shun it altogether.  The fact that Mastodon has crafted something this enjoyable, if not distinctly memorable, is reason enough to celebrate it.

Label: Reprise

Release Date: Mar 24 2009

Track list:
1. “Oblivion”
2. “Divinations”
3. “Quintessence”
4. “The Czar: I. Usurper – II. Escape – III. Martyr – IV. Spiral”
5. “Ghost of Karelia”
6. “Crack the Skye” (Feat. Scott Kelly)
7. “The Last Baron”

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3 Responses to “Album Review: Mastodon – Crack the Skye (Reprise)”

  1. Farley M. says:

    Crack the Skye has been a huge surprise for me in many ways and I didn’t like it much on my first listen through; I wanted more of the relentless assault of their earlier records. However, I think it’s grown on me. I like this record quite a bit now and find that many of the hooks (particularly “Oblivion” and “The Last Baron”) really are quite memorable.

    I saw them live at the 9:30 Club recently and was a little distraught by the fact that they played Crack the Skye start to finish. I don’t think that I will ever be able to stand a band doing something that rehearsed. Also, their live performance suffers horribly in comparison to how tight they sound on the record. Dudes are pushing themselves a lot, but I give them credit for that.

  2. Jeff says:

    I can see shows where bands play a full album from early in their career, like Steely Dan doing Aja and Gaucho this summer, but not current albums.

  3. mike says:

    pretty sweet album, quintessence is a sweet track…do you guys listen to edguy, hammerfall, or OWL?

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