Following up on 2006’s excellent Blood Mountain, Atlanta, Georgia’s favorite sons Mastodon stake their claim to prog-metal mastery on this year’s Crack the Skye. From its first note to its final extraneous “e”, Crack the Skye is a full-on prog assault that may even catch die-hard Mastodon fans unawares-brimming with compound-meter riffs and all manner of extra instruments, Mastodon’s new LP reads like a survey course on the volatile terrain where prog-rock and metal meet up. Many bands have tried to traverse this territory, with unfortunate results: from Iron Maiden’s overcooked Seventh Son of a Seventh Son to Dream Theater’s flaccid Master of Puppets cover-concert, it’s a rare bird that can make anything more than oil and water of prog and metal. Mastodon, thankfully, appears to have struck on some rare alchemy-because Crack the Skye is solid gold. The secret? Mastodon isn’t trying to be prog – it’s just progressing.
But rather than deliver an outright kick in the stones to longtime Mastodon listeners, the Georgia quartet play it smart with opener “Oblivion”, slipping in hints that this isn’t going to be any ordinary Mastodon record. From the opening stoned-out riff (subtly layered with acoustic guitars) to the writhing chorus (featuring sneakily complicated chord voicings from the band’s twin-guitar powerhouse), and culminating in a guitar solo duel, “Oblivion” carefully sets itself apart from the High on Fire-meets-Converge suckerpunch brutality of earlier work like “March of the Fire Ants”. The most marked change in Mastodon’s approach to its musical metallurgy is singer/bassist’s Troy Sanders’ decision to drop his trademarked growl for a smoother, prog-friendly croon.
Not that this does anything to temper the band’s catastrophic sound-“Divinations”, the second track and lead single for Crack the Skye features some of the nastiest guitar parts Mastodon has yet recorded. But “Divinations” proves to be more than just a metal-clad riff fest: in keeping with the widening scope of the album, the song opens with a Deliverance-worthy banjo fusillade, and features a Dick Dale-style surf solo that’s just as likely to induce permanent whiplash as the back-to-basics thrash of the verse.
After two songs, Mastodon figures it’s due time to drop their prog bomb on the audience. Later tracks like “The Ghost of Karelia” are a guided tour of prog and metal’s most harmonious moments, as the band channels former tour-mates like Tool and Opeth to create a progressive magnum opus that’s anything but toothless. Surprisingly, it’s the nine-minute-plus, ridiculously titled “The Czar: I. Usurper, II. Escape, III. Martyr, IV. Spiral” that’s Crack the Skye‘s miracle success story. Packed to the gills with layered keyboard parts, guitar solo expeditions, and an unfathomable amount of riffs and sections, what makes “The Czar…” so awesome is the fact that although it reads like the ultimate recipe for embarrassing disaster, it kicks an unprecedented amount of ass-as the organ-heavy extended introduction jolts into a bong-shattering metalfest replete with Slayer-style harmonies, culminating in a melodic half-time section and a bookend coda, it’s clear that the promise shown on tracks like Blood Mountain‘s “Siberian Divide” has been fulfilled, and that little stoner band from Georgia has moved to the head of the metal class.
However, Crack the Skye does have its few moments of chagrin. Most of these are concentrated in “Quintessence”: although it features a number of finger-twisting riffs, many of them layered up on acoustic and electric guitars, it suffers from poor composition. Where “The Czar” naturally glides from riff to riff with an expert sense of tension and release, “Quintessence”, at its worst, sounds like a cobbled-together riff tape that grossly abuses ProTools’ cut-and-paste functions. To make matters worse, Sanders’ attempts at falsetto during the bridge are nothing short of cringe-inducing. It’s the tendency towards musical accidents like these that trap bands in the prog-metal mire; thankfully, “Quintessence” is quickly forgotten as a slightly sour note in a rich tapestry of wicked riffing and epic, brooding passages.
Where “Quintessence” fails is where it violates the hard-and-fast rule that keeps the rest of Crack the Skye in check: when getting progressive, keep it succinct. The lush, snaking guitar-and-bass interplay on “Ghost of Karelia” would get old fast if it weren’t married to drummer Brann Dailor’s dead-dry kick drum assault that drops around the two-minute mark. The same is true for the lumbering title track, which slides through plenty of changes and some electric piano experiments before locking into a Cro-Magnon riff that gives way to a soaring, melodic chorus and a cascading flurry of guitar solos. Rather than making up the brunt of the music, moments like these are made all the heavier for being set into Crack the Skye‘s winding forest of riffs.
Crack the Skye‘s success is down to this expert play between heady, labyrinthine prog-rock and Spartan metal chug-and-shout. Mastodon understands, better than any band since Opeth, that more than just being technically impressive or a challenge to write, snaking epics like Crack the Skye need to be fun to listen to. Sure, some die-hard fans of earlier albums like Remission will balk at the longer run times and brainy melodies that Mastodon has spent the last three years cooking up, nuggets like Sanders’ throat-shredding growls a minute into “Crack the Skye” should not only come as a welcome surprise, but an incentive to explore the album more deeply. As for the rest, this album should stand as a continuation and refinement of the style spearheaded on Blood Mountain. Rather than being a band content to cover itself and pump out albums every year to increasingly lukewarm praise, Mastodon demonstrates on Crack the Skye not just a commitment to prog, but to progress. Which leaves the listener to wonder what’s next for Mastodon-a knee-jerk return to its Relapse-era stoner/hardcore, or Genesis-like levels of prog excess? Only time will tell: but if Crack the Skye suggests anything, it suggests that it will defy expectations. Mastodon’s creativity is anything but extinct.