“Beard Metal mate. That’s all they are, metal for chin-strokers.” This was the somewhat blinkered view of one particular metal-head when I hooked a lift home from one of Mastodon‘s Blood Mountain gigs. Fast forward a few months to the Download Festival and suddenly his tune has changed. “Fucking Awesome they are. I always thought so.”
The thing with Mastodon is that their albums do take time and involvement to get the most out of them. They make albums filled with themes and musical gymnastics that need a serious investment on the part of the listener. On the flipside of this is the fact that they also make albums crammed full of frantic drumming and seriously heavy riffs. In other words there’s enough visceral thrills to provide the most meat-headed of music fan with instant gratification.
Crack The Skye finds Mastodon at the point where they are in real danger of crossing over into mainstream acceptance. On the surface this sounds totally ridiculous, particularly when you take into account the concept behind it all. This is Mastodon’s Ether album (Fire, Water and Earth being covered on their Remission, Leviathan and Blood Mountain albums) and so they’ve taken a trip into time, space and spirituality.
To cut a long story short, Crack The Skye tells the story of a paraplegic who travels using astral projection. He becomes detached from his earthly body and his spirit eventually finds its way into the body of Rasputin. Once the lover of the Russian Queen is assassinated he figures he should guide the spirit of the paraplegic child back home before it is too late. Satan’s in there somewhere too, obviously.
So far, so art-rock. If you possess a beard, you’re probably stroking it at this very moment. But here’s the thing; Crack The Skye is more than just a concept album. It is rather a document of a band firing on all cylinders and playing as if their lives depended on it.
Oblivion kicks things off with a slow building riff that just grinds away incessantly until the band sprint off with a trademark machine-gun riff and Brann Dailor’s phenomenally propulsive drums. Then there are the vocals. Mastodon’s vocals have never been truly gruff, but on Crack The Skye there’s clearly been an effort to make things more anthemic, and more tuneful.
There are vocal parts on this record that positively drip with a pop influence. The thundering refrain of Quintessence is a case in point. It soars above the cacophony of guitars driven by pure melody. In letting go, Mastodon have found a new voice that they’d only previously hinted at.
If we’re talking genres then we can only really talk in terms of prog-rock. There are elements of surf guitar, country inflected melodies and those carefully executed vocals, but make no mistake, the concept behind Crack The Skye is not the only thing that is ambitious. Two tracks in particular stray fearlessly into prog-territory and manage to maintain their integrity.
Rasputin’s appearance in the four part epic The Czar is a mere distraction, there’s so much more to focus on. Whether it’s the funk inspired drumming, the vocal harmonies or the guitars of Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher intertwining like psychotic lovers anger-fucking, Mastodon never sound self-indulgent.
Likewise, closing track The Last Baron is a 13-minute barrage of ideas that calls to mind the likes of King Crimson and Iron Maiden. It twists and turns through rhythm changes and passages of ridiculous grandeur never losing focus once.
And then it’s over. Crack The Skye is a monolithic achievement from a band that never compromises in terms of vision or style. It’s easily the best metal album of the last 10 years. It could well be the best album you’ll hear this year in any genre. This is a career-defining album that should see Mastodon finally find the recognition they deserve.