I discovered Mastodon’s Crack The Skye because two friends told me I must hear it on two consecutive days. I’d never liked anything they previously did, but I was promised that it was a giant leap forward in terms of accessibility, songwriting and overall quality. And it is. With this fourth album, the progressive metal tour de force has conjured up a brilliant concept album with endless replay value. In short, it’s already one of my favorite albums of all time.
Mastodon formed in 1999 in Atlanta, GA, and is currently a pretty well known act. If you’ve never heard a song of theirs, you may recognize the band as the violent, screaming concession stand snacks that opened the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. Rest assured, Crack The Skye is nothing like that. Instead, it is a fifty minute, seven track masterpiece of roaring guitar lines, thunderous drum syncopation and powerful vocals. It also has some of the catchiest melodic lines (by three singers) I’ve ever heard and amazing dynamics. This album will be stuck in your head for a long time.
“Oblivion” oozes with coolness. It opens with a heavy guitar riff and building drums. After it gets going for a bit, the entire track shifts and drummer Brian Dailor introduces the verse. Then guitarist Bill Kelliher takes control with the bridge before guitarist Brent Hinds sings the unbelievably hypnotizing chorus. Their voices are unconventional but likable (especially Hinds), and they perform such intricate material with massive energy. There is an Indian influence in the guitar timbre, and the solos are fantastic. All of Crack The Skye will raise your adrenaline, but this track is especially involving. It’s one of those gems that suck you in even after a hundred listens and never leaves your mind.
The track fades into “Divinations.” After the banjo (yes, banjo) arpeggio, we have a more straightforward metal track. The vocals are harsher, as one of them (I’m not sure who) sounds like a devil while Hinds is like an angel declaring the ominous. The combination of countless guitar parts and the dream like chorus make it very intense. It ends with ghostly feedback, reminiscent of the end of Opeth’s 2002 Deliverance.
“Quintessence” features a guitar pattern straight out of The Mars Volta and very subtle harmonies. It’s astonishing how well these guys use their voices in conjunction with their instruments to shift between the crushing verses, psychedelic breathers and soft choruses. The track is simultaneously aggressive, apprehensive and always awesome. But it’s merely an appetizer to what comes next…
At eleven minutes, and containing four distinctive parts, “The Czar” is incredible. The beginning, distressed organ fades into a drum beat accented on the 3 and a bass line that predicts the verse. Hinds warns about the assassination of a usurper, and the subtle use of synthesizers shows a mature level of production. This part is one of the catchiest of Crack The Skye. Soon a really heavy guitar riff breaks up the peace while another vocal interrupts. Honestly, it’s very similar to how Dave Growl sounded as the Devil in the Tenacious D movie, but that’s not a bad thing because this second section kicks ass. He and Hind trade off vocals for a bit before all the madness stops, harmonies increase and a sharp guitar arpeggio leads into a roaring drum beat. Again Hinds takes over vocals with yet another simple but very memorable melody before a Led Zeppelin-ish guitar solo. Then the first part gets reprised (very cool use of continuity) before the track ends with a piano chord progression underneath a guitar line and swirling wind sound. If this is the end of the first part of whatever the hell Crack The Skye is about, it’s fitting. It’s remarkable when bands can construct multipart songs that really feel like one piece. Everything meshes together expertly.
“Ghosts of Karelia” begins with tapping cymbals before a multilayered guitar riff brings back the psychedelic metal vibe. It’s like running away from an explosion, looking back and realizing that everything is gone. The middle section gets trickier, showcasing Mastodon’s true progressive nature, and it’s all very antagonistic without being offensive to the ears.
The complexity continues into “Crack The Skye.” Another length guitar arpeggio is complemented with subtle syncopation. There is a definite feeling with this opening instrumental part that something devastating to the plot (again, whatever the hell it is) is happening. The verse on this track is the heaviest vocal on the album, leaning towards pure death metal. But Hinds’ chorus provides a great juxtaposition, as it is warm and contemplative. The band uses bells to accompany the distortion, again showing admirable production. Interestingly, they also use a computerized voice similar to the end of ELP’s “Karn Evil 9” before the ascending guitar riff, which borrows a few notes from the classic piece “Hall Of The Mountain King.” The track reprises the opening instrumental melody of “The Czar” (again, nice continuity) before segueing into the final, longest chapter of Crack The Skye.
With piano, acoustic guitar and more fantastic melodies, “The Last Baron” opens. It’s a very passionate song, and the chorus would fit on a System Of A Down album. The arpeggios, synthesizers and harmonies create an encompassing wall of sound. Like all of Crack The Skye, this track should be blasted. The second portion, after a drum rock out, enters into an even odder time signature. If “The Czar” was made up of self contained parts, this track is the schizophrenic brother because it’s a lot more random in the many different elements. Melodies and riffs overlap each other a lot more. It all builds up to the extremely progressive halfway mark, which honestly resembles Dream Theater. It’s the best example of their great musicianship on the album. Eventually the opening part is reprised, some more instrumental stuff happens and the album fades away with more ghostly atmosphere.
Crack The Skye is an album you must own. No, not hear. Own. It’s the rarest type of album: one that exceeds every expectation you may have, branding itself in your mind forever and constantly surprising you with how amazing it is. With this record, Mastodon has achieved the skills of Opeth in their ability to combine every changing, perfectly chosen riffs and melodies to create a progressive metal odyssey. They choose to use about a dozen or so small melodies, rather than a few fully developed ones, to keep listeners consistently hooked. There isn’t enough praise I could give for Crack The Skye. It’s more than just the band’s shining moment and an astonishing new entry into the genre. No, in its own unique, somewhat intangible way, it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever heard.