Sunday, 19 April 2009

REVIEW: Mastodon - Crack The Skye

Some reviews require time to fully digest the album. Time to decide whether or not the mixture of individual quality in certain songs melds together with the less familiar tunes, to form one cohesive and satisfying piece of sonic diversion.

And some simply trample all over one's expectations in the best possible way, demanding an immediate expulsion of opinion.

With Crack the Skye, I managed to hold off on the latter despite this being a situation of just that kind. This is an astonishingly immediate album but one that retains all the depth and intricacy of its forebears. Loaded with an epic concept, densely layered music, and songs spanning up to 13 minutes, this is an album that deserved more time to ensure as much of the effort as possible was covered. Still, it's bloody hard to reign oneself in on music so good......particularly when you've got so caught up in the spacial riffs of The Czar that you've missed your subway stop as a result.

The album sets out with the ominous chimes of Oblivion, one of the early leaks onto the net and one that I couldn't help but download earlier this year. In general I would prefer to keep albums such as this one big surprise on - or near, I'm still human.....sorry to torpedo any nascent faiths that have sprung up around H~T~A - their release date. It doesn't detract though, really, as this one is followed by the equally familiar single Divinations, which forms an effective, accessible springboard into the more epic sections of Crack the Skye. The former is a slow burner that winds from semi-threatening tones to soaring, stoned psychedelia. By contrast, the latter bursts into a driving riff, thunderous rhythm section, and the most memorable refrain of the album in "No Escape / Binding Spirits / No Escape / Trapped in Time Space", which evokes exactly the required imagery for the somewhat claustrophobic and other-worldly nature of the song (and, in fact, the entire album). Quintessence maintains the pace but takes on a more hopeful, contemplative edge that feels like it's somehow leaving the troubled earthly times of the first two tracks behind.

The Czar is the centre piece of the album and supremely summarises - if you can call 10+ mins a summary - all that is epic and powerful about Mastodon's approach to song writing. Broken down into four segments, it chronicles the story of Rasputin from his influence on Tsarist Russia during the Great War through to his murder, spiritual release, and continued influence on his countrymen after his death. Although feeling partially diverting from the central theme of spirituality and the journeys taken outside of common perception (dreams, collective conciousness etc), this one does rejoin towards the end of the song with its exploration of the travel after death ("Spiralling up through the crack in the sky"). This minor diversion, however, never detracts from the quality of the musicianship. Contrasting styles are woven expertly together with what seems to be effortless playing from Kelliher and Hinds, all the while underpinned by the low end rumble of Troy Sanders' bass work and the machine-sharp drumming of Brann Dailor. The latter is particularly noteworthy here, throwing in fills and breaks wherever possible without ever losing the underlying rhythm, over which the guitars so intricately play. The song could be dissected into far more than four sections, with each instrument having its own story within these and the vocals being more heavily layered than a Jamie Oliver lasagna. Suffice it to say that it showcases exactly why Mastodon are the premier metal band of the day.....and so much more beyond that.

Ghost of Karelia and Crack the Skye bring the track times down to a more common duration again but remain epic in scope, covering weightier areas of the concept such as the empty desolation that can occur with reflections on spirituality and the spectre of death that haunts even the positive aspects of spritual release into which the band are attempting to peer. The latter in particular accesses raw emotional reality for the band, specifically the death of Dailor's sister Skye at the age of 14. This being Mastodon, there are no clear lyrical conclusions to be drawn on how dealing with this loss has informed the overall concept. Instead, the music is left to convey the emotion and achieves this in spades. There's hope, despair, vulnerability, rage, and countless other expressions present in the title track alone, all astoundingly pieced together and avoiding any kind of sprawl that should by rights have emerged by this point.

The album closes out with the The Last Baron, another slow burning monster that occasionally runs free to express a variety of feelings. The lyrics here are a little more revealing, seeming to display a need for a figure to guide through the uncertainty of ending mortality ("Ghost of Man surround me in my slumber / I have no fear as your wing is my shelter"). The nebulous feeling and need for comfort is taken further by the music, often veering off into vague and seemingly random directions, only to return to the root of the song first heard as it opened. Even at this late stage, the band still plays with all their heart and layers everything together with a proficiency that beggars belief. Such is the hallmark of 'Crack the Skye' throughout.

To the question of this being the best Mastodon album to date, it's difficult to judge with such a strong existing catalogue. For the full raging Mastodon experience, I prefer 'Remission'. For the most accessible, 'Leviathan' remains the release with the biggest riffs and immediate songs. Even the bizarre 'Blood Mountain' wins out in a contest based purely on psychedelic headfuck value.

It is 'Crack the Skye' that melds all these brilliant releases into one sprawling yet immediate concept album, however. For that reason, it probably does constitute the band's most impressive achievement to date, not to mention one of the finest albums that this year is likely to see in any genre.

Like Tool and, well, not very many others to be honest, this band is capable of releasing consistently outstanding albums that never betray their style yet somehow continue to develop it. For this we can only be grateful once again and the best way to demonstrate thanks is to buy a useful set of headphones and get lost in this album. As with its sprawling and sometimes vague concept, 'Crack the Skye' effectively transports the listener away to another place, awash with mixed emotions and altered reality. Press play early on in the journey, though, as it's all too easy to return to one's own reality with a bump.......several subway stations closer to Harlem than expected.

Offical Site

Buy it at Insound!'s worth noting quickly that Mastodon begun their journey on Relapse, an outstanding independent label that most will probably know but should definitely be checked out, if not. All things extreme are located here, so if you're an indie-rock regular looking to dig into the grimy underbelly of metal from Mastodon downwards, these guys have all sorts to offer you........

Now playing: Mastodon - Quintessence
via FoxyTunes


Zach said...

Great review man.

zidered said...

Cheers fella. Did you say you write too? Mail me the blog address if so, I'd love to have a read. Thanks.

Zach said...

hey man...

couldn't find your email on the blog so I figured I would just post back.
I am not so much a music blogger as I am a singer/songwriter that blogs :) Wonder if my stuff would be up your alley actually. It's very different than what I've been reading on heavier than air, but who knows? You can find it in the mp3 player at my blog is there too. Hit me up for sure. thanks bro.