Mastodon – Crack The Skye

mastodon

Mastodon – Crack The Skye (Reprise Records; released March 24th, 2009)

I am not a metalhead; not even close- and I’ve never been accused of it, either. There’s a few bands I actually like that could be called metal, however; most are “instrumental” metal. Which kind of narrows down what it is I don’t like about metal- that god-damned Cookie Monster singing style, which is how you disguise really bad lyrics with an overly aggressive growl. Mastodon used a modified version of this on their debut EP, but as of late doesn’t have to dumb themselves down by stooping to this level- in fact; I’d call their brand of progressive metal thinking-man’s metal. It ain’t all Satan, skulls and whiskey; there’s some real depth (emotional as well) contained in their musical vision.

Mastodon‘s been able to slightly tweak their style from album to album; they’ve explored straight bash-and-destroy plunderisms to riff-heavy sludge to some proggier elements here on Crack The Skye; which isn’t to say they’ve abandoned their tried-and-true methods, they’ve just gotten better, more refined. Whereas Blood Mountain was all over the place in eleven tracks, featuring various guests (which reads like a who’s who in the worlds of prog/metal: Scott Kelly of Neurosis, Josh Homme and the two dudes from The Mars Volta; can you say “major label debut”?) this record is a finely honed homage to the mysticism of Grigori Rasputin and iconic Orthodoxy prevalent in Czarist Russia- with the minor themes of astral projections, out-of-body experiences and the disruption of the space-time continuum through wormhole travel.

In an interview with Stereogum last November, vocalist/bassist Troy Sanders is quoted as saying,

Crack The Skye is a departure from everything we’ve previously recorded in the sense that we kinda strapped on our aeroshells and departed from Earth for a while, and then captained to the ethereal element of the universe and kind of slept on the roof of the world for a while to get a perspective on this record. Basically we’re exploring the ethereal world. We’re dissecting the dark matter that dominates the universe, in a nutshell.

And so, the album starts with Oblivion; lyrics written and sung by drummer Brann Dailor echoing that scenario: “I flew beyond the sun before it was my time / burning all the gold that held me inside my shell / waiting for you to pull me back in / I almost had the world in my sight…” Sanders and lead guitarist Brett Hinds also share singing duties on the track, as well as throughout the entire record. That song gently fades into a cyclical banjo riff, which is then mimicked by an electric guitar, signaling the start of Divinations, the quote-unquote single (as if metal bands put out singles, thank you Warner/Reprise…)

What makes Divinations the single is not that it’s a mere three minutes and thirty-nine seconds, it’s that it’s probably Mastodon‘s single-most accessible track of their career. Not unlike Blood And Thunder, the opener off of 2004’s Leviathan (which I would say is their best album) it’s got a listenability unlike the scope of their other tracks- you either have to love metal or love music in general to “get” Mastodon. But Divinations would be a good start for a beginner Mastodon fan.

The lyrics of the song mention Karelia (a Russian state that changed hands many times over the years, to and from Finland) and traveling through a wormhole. Maybe the video can offer some clues as to what it is they’re talking about:

Or maybe not. Anyway, the album continues into Quintessence; I think there’s a little auto-tune vocals on here as well as synths, the track definitely has a proggy vibe to it, imagine if Yes got way into Black Sabbath. Or vice versa.

Which is a perfect segue into the The Czar; an almost eleven-minute monster of a suite with four definite movements; the first- Usurper, which is an obvious reference the night Rasputin was killed (as his intention was to usurp the throne from Nicholas II). Warned by the Czarina Alexandra, Rasputin is begged to “run away, run away” in the next movement, Escape. The next movement, Martyr, has Rasputin “spiraling up through the crack in sky”, saving a life by sacrificing his. Finally, Spiral has the bright guitars, piano and church organ that takes Rasputin up and away into the ether…

…until his specter returns to haunt the landscape in Ghost Of Karelia, could this narrative be that dead Russian mystic’s attempt at revenge? The lyrics would suggest so; “Wrathful one, nine eyes gaze / holding skulls filled and laced with human blood”. They say Rasputin wasn’t an easy kill, and that if anyone was doomed to haunt the Earth, looking for his killers it’d be this guy. I bet he never even died, that’s how metal he was.

Drummer Brann Dailor has said the album’s storyline follows something along these lines (from Metal Hall):

“There is a paraplegic and the only way that he can go anywhere is if he astral travels. He goes out of his body, into outer space and a bit like Icarus, he goes too close to the sun, burning off the golden umbilical cord that is attached to his solar plexus. So he is in outer space and he is lost, he gets sucked into a wormhole, he ends up in the spirit realm and he talks to spirits telling them that he is not really dead. So they send him to the Russian cult, they use him in a divination and they find out his problem. They decide they are going to help him. They put his soul inside Rasputin’s body. Rasputin goes to usurp the czar and he is murdered. The two souls fly out of Rasputin’s body through the crack in the sky(e) and Rasputin is the wise man that is trying to lead the child home to his body because his parents have discovered him by now and think that he is dead. Rasputin needs to get him back into his body before it’s too late. But they end up running into the Devil along the way and the Devil tries to steal their souls and bring them down…there are some obstacles along the way.”

The album’s title track is the culmination of said journey; Rasputin (called “blessed visionary” here) is attempting to shuttle the soul back to the body- but it’s not a “him”; “desperate heathens flock to sirens / guard your heartache well / momma, don’t let them her / don’t let them take her down…” Dailor wrote all the lyrics to Crack The Skye, and having a sister named Skye that committed suicide at age 14 would make this piece a plea of sorts to the spirit world that if her soul is indeed out there, floating in the ether, that she be brought back safe from the Devil. I remember hearing that as a kid: if you kill yourself, you go to hell. I don’t think that’s true- but then again I don’t believe in hell. So Mastodon‘s drummer is calling on an ancient Russian mystic to ferry his sister’s soul into heaven? This is one of the most awesome ideas for a concept album- weaving a personal tragedy into spiritual folklore, supernatural gnosticism and quantum physics.

The closing track, The Last Baron, is a thirteen minute journey through space and time- the track builds slowly into an emotionally explosive release, stopping here and there to dole out menacing riffs and thundering drum fills before it cleaves through solid brick walls with thick shards of sonic destruction from Bill Kelliher‘s metal hammer, all the while on its way to eventual, if not pure armageddon.

Like I said, I’m no metalhead- I veer more towards the instrumental (probably closer to “post-rock” than metal, maybe “post-metal” is more apt) side of things; Pelican, Russian Circles, that type of stuff. But I’ve always kept a special place in my heart for Mastodon; I said earlier that I thought Leviathan was their best work; hell; I think it’s one of the better albums of the decade. And I can say without any reservation that Crack The Skye is one of the best metal albums of the year…

…it’s probably the only metal record I’ll listen to this year.

Tracklisting:

1.  Oblivion

2.  Divinations

3.  Quintessence

4.  The Czar

1. Usurper

2. Escape

3. Martyr

4. Spiral

5.  Ghost Of Karelia

6.  Crack The Skye

7.  The Last Baron

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