Monday, April 20, 2009

Mastodon—Crack the Skye (Reprise)

I was initially a little disappointed with Crack the Skye. I’ll admit my listening strategy—following along with lyrics in hand—was part of the problem. I should have just cleared my mind and let the music wash over me without the lyrics to impose structure on what I hearing. My first impression was that the album was very slick and commercial. Even the epic tracks seemed to be smoothed over, and peppered with some corny rawk moments. The white-knuckled wild-ride metal of their earlier work was gone. It wasn’t until two-thirds of the way through the third track, “Quintessence,” that the band let loose with a truly heavy passage. I suspected what I feared might happen at this point in their career: that major label poachers had ambushed the Mastodon and thoroughly de-tusked the poor beast. After all, their Reprise debut Blood Mountain, with its wilful perversity and awkward stabs at moderating the chaos, hadn’t set the world alight. Perhaps a conscious effort to clean up and calm down for the next album would suit the suits.

After further listens, though, Crack the Skye’s true nature emerged. In essence, the new album is not a huge departure from the burly art metal of yore, but the refinements are significant and plentiful. I won’t declare, as some have, that this Mastodon’s big prog breakthrough album, because Mastodon were prog as hell to begin with. I will say that it’s catchy, and crafted with admirable care and confidence. Clever sequencing makes the album an increasingly musically challenging trip; putting the easily digested hard chargers out front before the first epic looms up, then two mid-length head-scratchers maintain the trippy mood, then another slowly unfolding epic, “The Last Baron,” concludes proceedings with some of the most exciting music on the album. The only thing Crack the Skye lacks is a palate-cleansing rager like “Blood and Thunder” or “The Wolf is Loose.” Maybe next time.

Brann Dailor’s Trailer Park Boys obsession notwithstanding, I’m sure these southern boys would be appalled by this idea, but certain sounds on this album reveal Mastodon as secret Canadians. “Quintessence” has that soaring, sweeping Devin Townsend sound, while “Ghost of Karelia” reminds me of Voivod circa their unheralded masterpiece The Outer Limits. And is that a “YYZ” quote in the midst of “The Last Baron”?

Guitar-wise, there’s a slight shift away from chunky power-chords in favour of fiddly Robert Fripp-plays-banjo arpeggio riffs (this may be because Brent Hinds wrote most of the music, with Bill Kelliher on the sidelines). Remission and Leviathan pulsed with new band excitement, while Blood Mountain thrived on experimentation and adrenaline-fueled haste. Now, 10 years since they first jammed together, Crack the Skye is the work of a relaxed, mature band whose hard graft has bought them time to work on their craft. Looking back on my first experience with the album, my main problem was that Mastodon had leapt forward further than I thought they would. They’ve delivered their Moving Pictures when I was expecting their Farewell to Kings.

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