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Mastodon - Crack the Skye

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Artist: Mastodon

Album: Crack the Skye

Label: Reprise

Review date: Apr. 3, 2009

When Mastodon vocalist Brent Hinds cracked his skull in a tussle with System Of A Down, he took advantage of his prolonged hospital stay, writing a song about what it’s like to be confined in movement, with astral projection as the condemned’s only escape. “Oblivion,” the opening track to Crack The Skye, supports any number of arguments: Has the band mastered every conceivable time signature?; Can it alternate instantaneously between southern music and heavy rock? Is math rock just a cheap indie attempt at what dedicated hard-rock bands do much better?

In the time since recording the epic Leviathan, Mastodon has gone out of its way to compose challenging music with corners too tight for most of their contemporaries. They could have garnered numerous King Crimson comparisons without really changing anything, but the band sweated the technique anyway with a wider palette of instruments, sounds and myriad vocal styles that never sound like simple imitation or mimicry. (Even the rumored Romanovs-vs-Rasputinian undercurrent of Crack The Skye trumps Leviathan‘s Moby Dick narrative.) At this point in their career, Mastodon seems as if they could potentially run out of challenges, having surpassed their peers so substantially that hiatus might be the only fair response.

Hinds and Co. have dispensed with the neanderthal growls and screams of past records, which might have robbed Crack the Skye of its surprising grace and pushed it closer to the nu-metal end of the spectrum. At risk of alienating their more adrenalin-driven fanbase, Mastodon has slowed things down considerably, making room not just for things like 6/8 banjo riffs, but all manner of new sounds, many of which sound pulled from a previous generation of prog (the ethereal keyboard choir washes remind me of Climax Blues Band or ELO). Balancing this fascination with Mellotron timbres is an odd shift toward dance rhythms; whereas the previous overt boogie of Blood Mountain and Leviathan smacked of some weird synthesis between Molly Hatchet and Metallica, the slightly more relaxed pace traffics in a more overtly funky groove, with tambourine supplanting hi-hat in a few spots.

In spite of the pre-release hype, Crack The Skye offers very little in the way of overt contextualization of the Russia-before-the-revolution theme. The lyrics seem to allude just as frequently to universally understood deals with the devil, not just the Czarist familial demise. When the protagonist of “Oblivion” sings of regret in the wake of his own physical disintegration, he’s not a victim of circumstance but moral consequence, “…Falling from grace ‘cause I’ve been away too long / Leaving you behind with my lonesome song.” But the album art does provide plenty of fodder for literary theorists. There’s the pointy-faced mystic dude, a Russian bear, and a weird nude figure with a glowing spleen for a sack.

Scan YouTube for Mastodon videos and you’ll find footage where Hinds claims that he and bassist Troy Sanders were approached by James Hetfield and told “We want to pass the metal torch on to you guys.” No offense, James, but Crack The Skye has me believing that your chosen protégés are thinking far heavier and hotter than Guitar Hero.

By Andy Freivogel

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