The road to this album has been hella-rough for members of Atlanta's premier mystic-metal quartet Mastodon… from family tragedies to health issues, even an alleged dust-up involving guitarist Brett Hinds and System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian that left Hinds hospitalized, they’ve literally got the scars to prove it. But as Conan (and Nietzsche, natch) could tell you, that which does not kill us makes us stronger… and their fourth studio release Crack the Skye proves this adage beyond a doubt, because to my ears it represents their most powerful and accomplished work to date. Read on to find out how this CD crumpled up your reviewer’s fragile mind like tissue paper!
Mastodon have never shied away from their prog-rock influences, and this wouldn’t be the first time they’ve boldly stomped their way into the grandest of ‘70s-style concept albums (e.g. the Moby Dick-inspired Leviathan), but this time they’ve gone all the way – carving progressive, folk, southern-rock and neo-classical elements into the cold steel of old-school melodic metal to create a sprawling, epic tale of mysticism, occult practices and astral projection by way of Russian history and folklore.
Now don’t panic… if that concept sounds too massive to absorb in a single take, that’s because it is. Seriously, you need to spend some quality sit-down time with Crack the Skye to work this stuff out… and then you might want to factor in some post-listening therapy sessions to repair the damage to your higher-brain functions – not unlike the post-traumatic stress of a Lovecraft protagonist after one fleeting glimpse at the face of the Unnameable. What I’m saying is, this is not just a bunch of artsy noodling here; this is metal that will boil your brain like a pressure-cooker.
The 50-minute album is divided into seven tracks, which should give you some idea of the broad canvas the band has chosen for their concept. According to some (kinda vague) accounts by the band, the songs seem to weave a loose but colorfully told tale of Czarist Russia and a spirit traveler whose soul enters the real-life “mad monk” Rasputin. Rasputin is infamous for his alleged influence on Russia’s Czar Nicholas II and family, which may have been – at least according to legend – aided by practices in alchemy and the occult. As history tells it, his attempts to overthrow the monarch ultimately led to his murder.
It’s from there that Mastodon’s version of the story spirals off to planet wacko, as the monk’s spirit flees from the Devil in an attempt to return to the beyond as prophesied by a strange religious sect (of which Rasputin was rumored to be a closet member). Or at least I think that’s what’s going on here… at some point it really becomes subject to interpretation, and I won’t try to influence you one way or the other. But I can address the complex, dense and mind-expanding musical technique through which the band brings these ideas across… or at least I’ll try my damnedest.
Oblivion sets the cosmic stage with dark, low atmospheric chords and a sonically searing solo from Hinds, but it's Divinations that really lets rip with a whiplash journey through half a dozen musical eras, from Russian-flavored acoustic instrumentation to an explosion of greasy southern-rock riffage and surreal lead guitar, with the seismic beats of drummer Brann Dailor serving as the thematic linchpin. Quintessence initially puts more emphasis on subtle harmonies and silvery neck-tapping leads, but descends into the depths of hell thanks to demoniacally distorted vocals.
The core of the Rasputin tale comes in the four-part, 10-minute epic The Czar, which creates an authentic Russian feel through traditional-style instruments and playing styles, beginning with the grandiose Usurper, and diving deep into dark, rolling, Pantera-style rhythm guitar for Escape before exploring powerful arena-style harmonies for the breathtaking Martyr, which presumably depicts the monk's violent earthly end... before soaring skyward with the protagonist's fleeing soul in Spiral, which forms a classical coda of haunting beauty.
The gut-shaking sledgehammer groove of Ghost of Karelia pulls you back a bit from the lofty proceedings for a callback to the signature sound they first forged with Remission, but the title track which follows adopts a less typical pattern for the band, taking on a schizophrenic “beauty & beast” nature by alternating between heartbreakingly melodic and coldly evil passages, with an able assist from guest vocalist Scott Kelly of Neurosis. The album closes on another epic note thanks to the sprawling, monolithic The Last Baron, which clocks in at 13 minutes, but never wears out its welcome.
Befitting the grand design of the album itself, the elaborate special-edition CD package features Paul Romano's mind-bending promotional art (think Tool’s 10,000 Days meets Russian Orthodox iconography), and there’s also a packed making-of DVD with band commentary and other goodies. Sadly, the “super-deluxe” boxed edition, which also featured a Romano lithograph and a cool fold-out “wormhole” CD case, sold out pretty quick. But keep an eye on eBay – I've seen a few floating around.
As unlikely as it may seem after reading this review, Skye may actually be the most accessible of Mastodon’s material, with more hooks that you might imagine and a level of production that broadens their sound to the scope of a high-concept blockbuster – but with the same trippy wonder and sense of dark fantasy that they handle so well. Not to mention they freakin’ kill it with unsurpassed, genre-hopping technique.
If the dense, morphing sound and impenetrable lyrics of their past releases tend to leave you scratching your head, then sorry, you won’t get a break this time around… but if you’re already a fan, or a lover of thematically complex metal in general, I’ll betcha a donut you’ll be pretty damn satisfied. Either way, you should take a gander, ‘cuz for my money this one feels like metal history in the making.