Unlike many progressive metal bands, Mastodon just can't stop progressing.
Two and a half years ago, we expected Mastodon to pull out all the stops on their hugely anticipated third album, and they didn't disappoint, as the triumphant Blood Mountain had the Atlanta, Georgia band serving notice that they had every intention of being the standard bearers for American metal in the 2000s. What we didn't expect was that the record's overall sales numbers would be so middling. At approximately 150,000 units sold, that's certainly no failure, but given the enthusiastic response to 2004's Relapse-released Leviathan by both fans and critics, some outstanding tour exposure (supporting Slayer, playing Ozzfest, hitting the huge festivals in Europe, and even playing the hipster-friendly Bonnaroo and Pitchfork Music Festivals), and loads of label hype, their Warner Brothers debut, for all its boldness and ambition, seemed to stagnate after peaking at number 32 on the album chart. So when it was announced that Mastodon was going to record with producer Brendan O'Brien, who had brought his mainstream-friendly polish to Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, and Velvet Revolver in the recent past, it was enough to have many wondering if the upcoming fourth album would be the band's big stab at capturing an audience much wider than a bunch of extreme metal fans.
As it turns out, Crack the Skye couldn't be farther from a mainstream-pandering effort a la the Black Album or Superunknown, and nor is it a continuation of the crushing yet intricate sound first established by 2001's Lifesblood EP and 2002's Remission. In its place, we have an album that's all but ditched the crust/sludge heaviness in favor of exploring the sprawling sounds of 1970s progressive rock, with nary an obvious "single" to be found. With just seven songs on a 50-minute record, you know these guys have been getting their prog on.
The new album's sleeker approach is the kind of surprising sonic shift that will remind many of the baffling, bass-less mix on Metallica's …And Justice For All 21 years ago, only because Mastodon's early material such as "Crusher Destroyer", "March of the Fire Ants", and "Blood and Thunder" all sounded so incredibly heavy on record, and even more so in a live setting. This time around, though, with O'Brien at the helm, Crack the Skye is clearly going for a cleaner, more melodic, more spacious sound devoid of the high compression that plagues many of today's metal releases, and in turn, the four musicians have responded with their most disciplined performances on record to date.
Mastodon's new direction is made apparent immediately, starting with the opening track. Compared to Blood Mountain's incendiary "The Wolf is Loose", "Oblivion" is far more understated, its murky opening riff slowly gaining momentum, but when the chugging begins in earnest, the emphasis is placed not on the rhythm riff but the richly layered vocal melodies instead, with drummer Brann Dailor (in a shockingly good vocal turn) handling the verses, bassist Troy Sanders joining in the bridge, and guitarist Brent Hinds taking over during the choruses. The galloping "Divinations" comes closest to equaling the headbang-inducing fury of their previous material, but for all the ferocity of that central riff, our attention is drawn to the song's other bells and whistles, like the plucked banjo notes in the intro, the lithe dual harmonies by Hinds and Bill Kelliher, Hinds' powerhouse vocal turn in the verses, and the capper, an absolutely wicked surf guitar solo.
The spacey, synth-laden bridge and hardcore-inspired choruses of "Quintessence", the slow-burning jam of "Ghost of Karelia", and the elegiac title track are compelling examples of how Mastodon has broadened its sound, but it's on the album's two epic tracks where the album peaks. In fact, the 11-minute suite "The Czar" just might be the best song the band has ever written. Starting out as a murky ballad reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter", the song gradually builds up to the moment at the 3:44 mark where the song takes an abrupt turn with a fabulous, Michael Schenker-style riff before launching into a funk-fueled jam. For a band that previously loved to make songs as complicated as possible, the restraint shown is remarkable, especially on the part of Dailor, whose paradiddling fills are nonexistent, sticking to a more thunderous, fluid groove which beautifully underscores the climactic, Jimmy Page-like solo during the last third of the song. The 13-minute "The Last Baron" is similarly arranged but more dexterous, Hinds and Kelliher pulling out riff after monstrous riff, channeling 1970s Rush (note the sly "YYZ" homage midway through), Red-era King Crimson, and Frank Zappa seemingly all at once, yet just like "The Czar', there's a definite cohesion to the track, and none of the tempo shifts feel arbitrarily tossed in.
As much as Mastodon loves to offer complicated explanations of they lyrical themes on each new album, it's not as if each song begs to be analyzed as closely as on, say, 2112 or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; for all the rambling about Rasputin, the Khlysty, wormholes, and astral planes on Crack the Skye, Mastodon's concepts tend to be a bit too muddled for their own good. Instead, much like the work of their peers High on Fire, their lyrics are best appreciated as fun examples of hesher bombast, and little more. As is the case with metal music in general, it's best enjoyed as one gigantic, ostentatious package, and although Mastodon's approach has been altered slightly on this album, they never fail to deliver that end of the bargain, record sales be damned.